Thursday, November 12, 2015

On Curiosity & The Making of Perfectly Good White Boy

Figure 1.  a book born from a burning question

"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity."  - Ellen Parr (often incorrectly attributed to Dorothy Parker)

Yesterday was Veteran's Day. So I was thinking about my second book, Perfectly Good White Boy, which featured a main character named Sean who contemplates joining the Marines.

If you haven't read the book, it's about other stuff, too. It also has my favorite ending of all three of my published books, too.

And Perfectly Good White Boy is not really about Sean becoming a Marine, which some reviewers haven't liked. It's more about what kind of person would make that choice at all, and why.

I don't come from a military family. My father was conscripted into the Syrian Army but left to the United States to attend college and never finished his service. My grandfather and his brother both enlisted in the Army during World War II, which I guess was the thing to do. Other than that, it's not a choice anyone else close to me has willingly made.

Until I met my husband. Who, a few days after graduating from high school, got on a Greyhound bus to attend boot camp as a sailor in U.S. Navy.

I have always been curious about why a person would enlist in our all-volunteer military like he did. Over the years, he's tried to explain it to me, what it means to be a young man without structure or prospects, without backing or money or clear abilities. What easier route to masculine respectability and strength could there be than joining the military, right?

Yeah. I guess so. But I still would've done so many other things! I can't understand why you'd give up your personal liberty to be bossed around by screaming drill instructors, made to shoot weapons in the hope you'd someday be good at killing actual people with them and to worry about having to be tidy in your uniform and personal effects. All while endlessly running. I'd seen lots of military movies; I knew how that shit worked.

And I knew always I would have sucked so bad at it. I would have sobbed every night and been beaten with a pillowcase full of bars of soap. I would have collapsed during runs and forgotten the chorus to the DI's songs and had heart failure doing that many push-ups. I would never have figured out how to make my bed or shine my shoes. I can't do one single pull-up, even. I'm terrible at all that crap.

Figure 2. I mean, COME ON

So this decision, one lots of young people make, particularly young men, has always fascinated me. I didn't quite understand it, yet the U.S. military is mighty and strong and persists as an institution, no matter how flawed and fucked-up I find it. What happened is I wrote an entire book around the whole question of what motivates young men like this. While I don't think I fully understand why people make this choice, I've become less obsessed with why people do this and much more sympathetic to their reasoning for doing so. The concept hasn't been conquered, but has become much more complex. This is very personally satisfying to me, as a human and a writer, both.

Some people say that you should write what you know.

Others say you should write what you want to know.

I say both are right. But I would add: write what you can't stop thinking about. 

When you let curiosity be your map, there's really no limit to where your writing might go.

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