Pretty much any fiction writer will say their characters are as important to them as their kids. Character development is one of my favorite things about writing and I recently came to an interesting conclusion about my process – a large portion of my dramatis personae are inspired from people I met in dive bars. That’s easily where you meet the most interesting people. It’s not the clubs or fancy restaurants or fund raisers or through your college buddies. It’s in real low down places where humanity goes to seek out that which they are looking for – whatever it is, or maybe nothing at all. It’s also where people feel free to show their real selves. There’s no veneer in a dirty, rundown joint that serves the vilest of swill to those either hurting in their souls or merely trying to shake off the weathered skin of real life for a few minutes or hours. Dive bars are where the bedrock of humanity chooses to display their whole beings.
I didn’t start frequenting dive bars until my mid-thirties. In my younger days I maintained the public face of a pretty spoiled prick. I would only patronize those places wherein only the crème of the professional crop go slithering about – lawyers, politicians, business people, wannabe business people and that lot. I still go to those places but now it’s with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Those people are a bit boring and ubiquitous in as much as literary interest is concerned. How many different ways can you write folks like that? Desiree became a successful attorney after working her way through law school stripping and tending bar. Conrad always wanted to be an entrepreneur but was only able to afford tuition to the school of hard knocks and had to sell his left shoelace in order to afford the apple that inspired his idea to manufacture left handed apple corers and finally hitting it big.
Give me Tanya; a single sixty something diminutive black woman I met in New Haven, CT who grew up as poor as poor could be but somehow saved up her money and scored a gig working at the Social Security office in San Francisco in the early seventies and then after reaching pension age, moved back to New Haven and became a librarian for Yale. Why is that more interesting than the aforementioned people? Because someone like Tanya will give you their real story and let you knead through the clay that made them what they are and what they believe in. Tanya was grateful for everything that happened to her and although I would argue it was all her – she would say it was luck and happenstance. Try finding a lawyer who would say that! Tanya possesses no ego and practices life on a common sense platform. Except for her trip across country to San Fran, she’s never really been anywhere else. Once a year she takes a vacation – thirty miles east of New Haven where she stays in a Howard Johnsons motel for three days (she takes a train by the way, never got a driver’s license) and eats out at a Friendly’s restaurant. If you’re not from the Northeast – Friendly’s is a step above McDonald’s. Tanya’s advice to everyone is that if you can’t afford to spend twenty bucks when you go to the dive bar – stay home until you can.
Does Tanya’s life sound boring to you? Then you’re not a writer. I could build a hell of a character around her life and a great story as well. Her life is full of good stuff to play with. It has morals, in term of morals to the story and regular morals as well. It shows character, strength, quiet rebellion but rebellion nonetheless and humanity. One could make a nice, quiet heartfelt story about Tanya, the kind you could shop to Reader’s Digest or some fluffy literary rag. Or, if you’re like me, add in some darkness and struggle, shore it up with a few lurid relationships along the way and ending up with her alone, but content and willing to go off into the afterlife with little fanfare, but also no regrets. How about this; a fictional historical chronicle of life as a quiet, but astute young black woman making her own way in the drastically changing United States of the seventies. With a little research and some imagination you could have a Gore Vidal-ish novel to beat the band.
What’s the point of this diatribe? I don’t fucking know. I guess I was thinking about my characters and how they were born and felt like passing it along. For all you writers; if you’re in a bind and need to go and toss some character attributes into your arrow bag then take a little respite to your local dive and spend some time talking to real people. Sometimes your imagination needs a little kick in the ass and nothing is as good as taking cues from actual humans. For readers, if you’re enjoying someone’s work keep in mind the arduous process that goes into creating your favorite made up people and understand it’s about as hard as squeezing a watermelon through a hole the size of a lemon. (See what I did there?)
#divebars #newhaven #jbvincent #theanchor #bukowski