I was a poet. Or perhaps I should say “poet.”
I had loved jotting down stories when I was a kid. Inspired by the Encyclopedia Brown, Choose Your Own Adventure, and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Detectives series, I let my imagination run wild on my little notepad with tales of adventures that were probably terrible but definitely stopped after a page or two. I even tried my hand at writing Duran Duran’s bio—sourced from Tiger Beat and Bop magazines as well as MTV interviews. I arranged four little notebook pages on the glass of my father’s work’s copier and copied my book. Though I was proud of the effort, something felt wrong.
I was sure—though I was unclear how—there was a different way to write.
Encouraged by my love for music, I took to writing poems, or, as I told myself, song lyrics. These succinct writings were much more in line with my attention span, as I believed they told great stories about people doing whatever—the best part: I believed they were inspired writings, ones that needn’t be revised.
In the years up and through high school, I wrote lots of poems—some on scraps of paper collected in a three-ring binder, some in a journal. If given a creative opportunity in English class, I wrote a poem. This tended to save my grade from the zeroes earned from missing homework assignments. I even wrote the occasional love poem for a friend to be given to a girlfriend.
In college, in my Freshman comp course, we kept journals. At year’s end, after I had written several poems alongside the semester’s assignments—actually I had typed these, all in lower case, sans punctuation—my instructor commented that my writing had:” Little nuggets of gold” in them.
Encouraged with comments such as those, I felt destined for greatness. Not only was I a poet, I was a burgeoning musician, learning bass guitar and writing song lyrics. Success was surely just around the corner, I would think, zipping up my flannel and stepping outside for a cigarette.
I had considered writing stories, but the majority of the writing I had been exposed to in school at that point consisted of the classics (with few exceptions). My love for reading had waned considerably since my youth; although I read a few magazines religiously—Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly—but I hadn’t picked up a book for pleasure in years. With work and school devouring my time, I didn’t have the energy. This would have cut into my drinking or sleeping in ways I didn’t care to ponder. And since I wasn’t into reading, I didn’t feel like writing something I wouldn’t read (or listen to).
And then Pulp Fiction opened.
In 1994, I was turning 20. I had recently quit Blockbuster Video in favor of being a busboy/food runner at a restaurant. I was in my third year of college (community college, that is) and looking forward to finally transferring to UCSD. Pearl Jam had released their second album, was working on their third, and music in general was pulsing with life that really spoke to me: artists were not going for the flashy, glammed out look popular with some 80s bands. No, these bands—especially the ones who would get lumped into Grunge music before it was something to get rolled into—wore regular clothes, wrote intelligent, heart-felt songs. Was it true that artists had been doing this for decades? Sure. But I didn’t connect with those artists the way I did with early 90s music. I felt something that I couldn’t quite put a name too.
Pulp Fiction made this clear.
I saw the movie the night it opened and the next two nights after that. Leading up to its release, I’d read a lot about it—the buzz from Cannes had raised expectations and people were looking to this movie to change the way movies got made. (It did, but that’s another conversation.) I’d seen Reservoir Dogs while I worked at Blockbuster, so I knew director Tarantino would come up with something interesting. When the previews ended and the movie began, I had no idea just how much my world would shift.
Without breaking down the movie in its entirety (which I might do in a later post), I will say, in short, that the movie rocked my world for one reason: Tarantino had taken the ordinary and found a way to make it extraordinary, a piece of art. A movie driven by dialogue, Pulp Fiction had characters talking about life real life trivialities, shining light on things that had clearly been given more thought that people would typically afford (things like cheeseburgers). Meanwhile, life was crashing down on these characters in ways unrelated to their conversations.
I stopped writing poems after my three-day film binge and took up short story writing: Tarantino had shown me that real drama occurred close to home. Once I transferred to UCSD, I took a course on Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Wouldn’t you know, authors had been mining similar, close-to-home experiences. I just never knew about them. And now that I did, I took up the craft and set about examining the world around me and interpreting what I saw, with the hope that my take would offer something worth noticing.
This is what I attempt every time I start a story.