East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Toilet Story, or beware the tales you tell

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My friend Hell (no, not his real name but yes, they really call him like that) is a fine writer and an excellent editor, and he is the sort that harbours very few (if any) romantic illusions about this writing business. Stealing a page from Quentin Tarantino, he often talks about “The Toilet Story”.

If you remember the movie Reservoir Dogs, one of the characters is an undercover cop, and he tells how he worked on creating his character before he started his job. The character-creation process involved inventing a story – in his case about a scary ten minutes in a public toilet – as part of his cover.

Well, pretend you’re Don Rickles… and tell a joke, all right?
The things you gotta remember are the details. The details sell your story.
This particular story takes place in a men’s room.
You gotta know all the details–whether they got paper towels or a blower to dry your hands. You gotta know if the stalls ain’t got no doors or not. You gotta know if they got liquid soap or that pink, granulated shit… they used in high school.

My friend Hell says writers are like that – just like undercover cops, they all have a Toilet Story they tell when somebody asks them how they started, how they broke through, what’s their life like, where they get their ideas.
It’s not the truth, because those that ask the question do not want the truth – they don’t want the painful fingers and the frustration, the rejection slips and the fear, the overdue bills and the instant noodles.
They want romance – and so the writers, being adept at weaving lies for fun and profit, give them just that.
A bit of romance, a bit of mystique, maybe a self-deprecating joke because underdog stories are fun, as long as they are romantic.
Writers build their own legend, and they have their well-rehearsed scripts, that fit the readers’ expectations.
The Toilet Story.

All writers have their Toilet Stories.
Listen to their interviews, read them in the magazines, or in the bios in the dust jacket flaps, and you’ll notice the story is always the same, down to the wording, the phrase structure, the punchline.
Fun, poignant, perfectly balanced and well-rehearsed.

I have one too, of course.
I roll it out when I get asked how I started writing.
And there’s me, there, in 1982, fifteen years old, typing away on my mother’s Olivetti Lettera 32, writing (very poor) stories mostly influenced by Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, because my friends, that kept me company when I was a kid, were writers with their stories – Burroughs and Howard, Hamilton and Williamson, Brackett and C.L. Moore…
And we always want to be like our friends, when we are kids.
And this is admittedly a good start, but it might not please the audience. They probably know two of those six I mentioned, anyway, if we are lucky.
And there is no romance, no punch-line.
It needs work.

So there’s a story I tell at presentations, when the question invariably pops up. My very own Toilet Story.
Like all the best stories (and all the Toilet Stories worth their name) is a sapient mix of fact and fiction, and it’s got all the details in place.
Because the details sell your story.

I started writing, I say, in high school, second year. Because while was putting some order in the closet, I had found my mother’s Olivetti Lettera 32. I had just read Asimov on Science Fiction, that in Italy had been published in 1981, and the book included a series of pieces in which Ike invited the reader to try and write a story. And I loved stories.
And so I started writing.
Also, and more importantly, I was trying to impress a certain blond girl that sat in the third row in class.
What a better way, to impress a girl, than writing stories of super-science and high adventure, right?
So I wrote stories throughout my high school years.
They were pretty bad.
And she never ever read a single line I wrote, but she clearly and with certainty pigeon-holed me as the weird geek that wrote stories about little green men.
And so I want to say to all the young men here tonight, if you think writing will be a good way to pull girls… it’s not.
BUT… I did learn how to write a story, and barely fifteen years later I made my first sale.

Here people laugh politely, and we can move on to something more interesting than my adolescence.

I’m not saying now that my Toilet Story is a masterwork. It’s not.
But it’s serviceable, it has the right amount of detail, and it’s got the right mix of high-school romance, hard-boiled cynicism and self-deprecation.

It works.
It does its job.
It gives the people what they want – a character and a story, not a person and a real life.
My job is done.

But there’s another side to this whole business.
One that my friend Hell does not take into account in his theory.
It probably boils down to the fact that reality always trumps fiction.
Expect the unexpected.

And about one hour ago the blonde girl in the third row messaged me to tell me she loves my stories, and would like to read more.

Isn’t this writing business amazing?
Now it looks like I’ll have to invent me another Toilet Story.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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