Going Over the Rail to Impress the Cool Boys

“No way. I’m not doing it,” C. said looking down over the balcony rail. We were three floors up. My future traveling companion stepped away from the railing too. “Yeah. It’s not a good idea.”

The two of them were scared, and all three of us were drunk. I looked up at the stars and then down to the ground. I’d show them. I’d go on my own. “I’m doing it,” I said and swung a leg over the side.

the front of the dorm (with a certain somebody cropped out)
the front of the dorm (with a certain somebody cropped out)

A short while before we’d been talking about the curfew and the locked doors. The Peace Corps training director had decided that all volunteers should be back in the dorm by 11. She ordered the dorm staff to lock the front doors to prove she was serious and in control. It was the lock that ticked many of us off.

Here we were, ranging in age from 22 to 67, leaving our homes, our language, and our known comforts, and that woman was locking us in at 11. Even the volunteers who were 20 years older than she was, she talked to as if they were 12. Well, C., Mr. Future Traveling Companion, and I decided to prove our maturity by breaking out of the building. With male bluster and bravado the two of them headed to my room because it faced the back of the building. The balconies were on the back.

I followed because of course I had a crush on the Companion and because in the way that groups thrown together will divide themselves into cliques, I’d already thrown my lot in with them. In two months I would discover what mistakes both these reasons were, but in that moment, standing in the night air with the cool guys, I could do anything.

Now in this building, the third floor is what we would call the fourth. In the dark with plenty of wine and ego in my system, that didn’t seem far at all. I wanted to be braver than the boys. This has often been my undoing.

I sat on the rail, twisted around and let my legs dangle in the air. There were vines and drains on the side of this building that had seen no meaningful maintenance since before the ousting of the communists party–but they held. I got to the balcony below, and heard the guys curse. They were not going to be outdone by a girl. Pleased, I kept going down and the only time I nearly lost my grip was when I happen to discover that the director’s assistant’s curtains were open and she was making out with a volunteer.

Later when we wanted back in the building, we could but stare up its sides. Stumbling through the bushes, we found someone to let us in–the Peace Corps driver who seemed unconcerned that we were breaking curfew and that he was in his underwear. At least we were in.

I’m not big on rule breaking. I’ve read lots of books on writing and I try to remember all the rules–show; don’t tell–write what you know–don’t do this–don’t so-on-and-so-forth. Yes. Absolutely. Duly noted. If I were a great writer–say, Margaret Atwood–I could ignore the rules as I wished. But I’m me, and I’ve got to worry about breaking my neck. If I’m going to violate a few good rules, I’ve got to have a better motivation than impressing the cool boys. Tried that, and ended up splattered on the pavement in a different way.

What writers do you know break writing rules and land in one piece?

8 thoughts on “Going Over the Rail to Impress the Cool Boys

  1. Philip Roth, Philip Pullman, Alice Munro, Anne Proulx (I mean, geez, a story from the POV of a tractor!),Michael Chabon, Miranda July, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, Honore Balzac, Ruth Rendell, Denise Mina, Nicole Kraus, Haruki Murikami. To name but a few. All regularly take chances and although they might impress some cool boys, they seem to have come to know the value of risk in work.

    See also Rowena, who knows a risk when she sees it.

    If writers had stuck to writing hat they know, Captain Nemo might have been a ferry boat captain instead of going 20K leagues under the sea, Tarzan might never have got to Mars, and The Odyssey would have not got itself composed.

    One day I had the good fortune to meet the famed songwriter E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, who spoke of being interviewed by an incredulous newspaperman who wondered how he could write so memorable a song as “April in Paris” without ever being there. He smiled as he recounted his response to the reporter. “Listen, kid,” he said, “I’ve never been over the rainbow, and that didn’t stop me.”

    The person to impress is Marta. There is already something about Marta’s writing that impresses, or we wouldn’t be here. I could go on about that subject, but maybe later. For now, think risk, boundary, reach. Feel what your characters want, then put it just outside their grasp and let them try to figure a way toward it. So what if they fail, it is the trying and the figuring that are the story. Success and failure are value judgments tacked on by governors of Alaska.

  2. An author whose name I don’t see passed around much, a rule-breaker (sometimes in disturbing, I’m-not-sure-I-can-keep-reading-this ways): Gilbert Sorrentino. Also (although not everyone’s cup of tea for sure) Nicholson Baker.

    I like that you seem to be relaxing, writing longer posts here. (But I know it’s also got to be exhausting finding the time.)

  3. Nabokov’s Lolita…one of the best and disturbing books I have ever read. Talk about breaking the rules.

    Maybe once we have mastered the rules, then we get understand the craft of breaking them?

  4. Okay, I’ve read what you’ve all said, and I’m going to work on that novel some more.

    Oh, but JES, relaxing? Me? I doubt it. But you do bring up that question–how long should a post be?

  5. How long should a post be?

    If one post every day, then reading the post should not require a scheduled potty break for the reader. If one only posts every couple of days, then I think the post should see its way through to a substantive end and not edited to a bony skeleton of a thought.

    Is there really an answer to that question? If you find it, will you let me know? =)

  6. The Missus mentioned the other day that I’m expecting a heck of a lot of the handful of regular visitors I get, to be hammering them nearly every day with 1K-word posts. I’ve gotta watch out for post length for sure. But I’ve never felt anywhere near burdened here. (The above is only 600-some words.)

    It’s a tough call, like Sophie says. If I naturally wrote fewer words per post, then I’d have a lot more time to spend revising for word-count. šŸ™‚

  7. I can’t believe I didn’t comment on this post. I read it, but must have gotten interrupted by pesky children.

    First off, I can’t say how honored I am by Shelley’s comment, although I am a little unsure if I warrant it.

    But maybe I didn’t post a comment because I don’t really know who breaks the rules. I have a bad memory for names sometimes and for rules and for dates for schools of thought and all those official things. I’m not really sure which rules those are. I haven’t been a good rule follower since I was a kid and my parents weren’t really up to the task of setting rules for me, so I had to make all my own rules.

    Well, I followed my own rules pretty well, and they got me out of some tough situations, but since then, I don’t follow any rules that don’t feel right, and I make up my own that do feel right, and those often match up with the standard rules of behavior. But when I have to follow traditional rules, i get a little nervous, as if I will get the magic rules wrong.

    My advice for you? Forget rules. They don’t matter. Trust truth. Trust yourself. Trust what is right. Trust the process.


    And keep going.

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