When I was in high school and totaled my car at sixteen, my parents decided I should get a part-time job to help pay for a new car. I ended up waitressing at The Standard, a job I was terrible at. It never struck me as odd that a restaurant would be named “The Standard” as if that was the best they could hope for, and in retrospect, I’m not even sure if that was the name or just what everyone called it. Their only local competition was the country club which seemed to always be under new management, and the pizza place, which for some reason in my mind is connected to religious zealots. So maybe The Standard, or even the sub-standard, was enough to aspire to.
When I worked there I was often on shift with a short, sketchy guy who in memory was in his thirties but might have been as young as twenty-four. He had a moustache and tinted glasses, and while I can recognize now he was flirting with me, I didn’t know it at the time.
I started this story based on a writing exercise Ron Carlson did at the Sinclair Annual Writers’ Workshop. The assignment was to start a story with this line:
“The first time I heard (song title) by (artist) I was with (person – first, middle, last name) down/at/by/etc the (place) doing (action).”
The purpose here is momentum and authority–get enough interesting details and action together with enough authority based on the specifics and you’ve got a hook. The second part of the assignment was to pick a number between one and five, and based on your number, you had to write a very long sentence based on one of those fill-in-the-blanks. Pick #1 and you had to write about the song title; pick #2 and you had to write about the artist, etc. It was about “turning left” or not writing about what might be the most interesting hook, but something else to give yourself more momentum, more details, to keep building the story.
Carlson kept saying two things: you want sentences with enough momentum they give you the next sentence, and the goal is to survive the draft. If you set the bar at “I want to write a brilliant story” you’ll never get there.
Of course, none of this exercise made it in the story, although the song I choose was “Beast of Burden” by the Rolling Stones, and when I had to write more about the song title I brought up the video with Mick Jagger and Bette Midler, and how watching that video made the character realize for the first time that unconventionally attractive people could be sexy, which may have led me back to the cook at The Standard. Regardless, that start gave me enough momentum to survive the draft, which might seem like a sub-standard goal, but is about all I ever ask of myself in the beginning.