July 27th, 2011 / 12:11 pm
Behind the Scenes & Random

The Writer’s Mind?

Last night as I was leaving the local pub, a middle-aged drunk woman jumped into my car with me before I knew what was happening. She said, “Hey, gimme a ride up the street?” and proceeded to talk about her husband who doesn’t come home when he should but who’s pretty good to her.

I didn’t know she was a prostitute until she said, “Hey, slow down,” at which point I slowed to 30mph on a 45mph street, and “Roll down your windows. How am I supposed to see?” So we rolled past the seedy motels of my neighborhood, as she explained to me how she has to see who’s where. This somehow made sense to me. It even made sense when she had me turn onto a street behind an abandoned Winn Dixie and onto another, smaller street where several men strolled on cell phones. I thought this was where she’d get out, but when two of the men came up to the car, she told me to go. She said, “Go. Now.” Even this seemed okay. We drove some more, casing more corners, checking out the motel situations.

We spotted another woman she knew, much younger, much thinner, much more traditionally dressed for this line of work, and I pulled onto a corner to drop her off. But we were friends now. She didn’t want to leave, so she whispered that the girl was her daughter. I said, “Really?” and she said, “No.”

The two of them argued through the window about a lighter for a while, and then they fought about age differences. “She says I’m 14,” the new girl told me, “but don’t believe her. I’m 29.”

And then the woman with whom I’d, by now, spent a half an hour or so, jumped out of my car and started chasing her friend down the street and out of my life. All I could think was, I have to get out here more often. What a great story this would make. And I do this all the time. With my dad’s Alzheimer’s. With crazy roommates. How will I do this justice on paper, as though paper is the only way to legitimize life.

Do other writers do this? Am I my own kind of prostitute?


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  1. Thomas Levy

      did you write teh story yet?

  2. alexisorgera


  3. Carl

      spent the last 15 minutes of work yesterday frantically copying down types of incidents/body parts affected from a years-old incident report “just in case.” I don’t know if it’s prostitution or hoarding..

  4. deadgod

      Do you have a heart of gold?

  5. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Aw, Alexis this is great! Easily one of my favorite pieces put up here.

      I think I do the same thing, and I like how it’s compared to being a type of prostitute, as demeaning as it might seem. It’s like a mutually beneficial relationship, right? The person you spend time with gets company and a friendly ear, and you get to hear some of the coolest stories/experience the most insane events ever.

      Back in high school I used to hang out with all the big drug dealers for the same sort of effect. I used to drive em around so they could make various deals, and by junior or senior year they were up to heroin and regularly in and out of rehab. I never touched any drugs in high school except alcohol, I was in all the boring honors classes, so being around them sort of made up for this lameness I was surrounded on a daily basis, hanging out with them provided me with fun and great material. And nowadays I’ll go to a bar and sit there and just talk to whomever is next to me. So far I ran into an old high school classmate who’d just gotten out of jail for dealing crack, some douchebag who worked for some publishing house, and At the Drive In’s old manager. Life is fun, people are fun, and people are typically the best thing to tell stories about, so yeah, right on, prostituting.

  6. bobby

      I like to expose brain to different things and scenarios, just so I can see what it does to my brain, so that like when it’s time to be “creative” I like to think I’ve muddied my brain up enough so that I’m not just “creative” but also “productive.” 

  7. maya weeks

      is paper not the only way to legitimize life? i almost think that telling the story is not so important as “capturing” the moment that it comes out of.

  8. tortietabbie

      I do this constantly – sometimes I’ll see a person walking a certain way or making an odd kind of face and I’ll think, “how would I write that?” 

  9. DeWitt Brinson

      Sounds less like prostitution and more like OCD.

      I’m not sure if your question is about morality or just whether you’re weird. I think everyone does this to a greater or lesser extent, not just writers. Storytelling is natural and sometimes it’s the only thig to look forward to–those moments where life sucks but you think, this will be a funny story someday.

      But yeah, you’re just obsessed and you sometimes insert yourself in dangerous situtations.

      You should be careful though. Writers become much less prolific after they’re dead.

  10. Leapsloth14

      I think you left a little scene out of that evening.

  11. Eppie

      All I ever think about is sex.

  12. lorian long

      i became a social worker instead of pursuing my MFA thinking it would generate more ‘material’ which duh of course it did but it also created this weird hesitation for me cuz the shit i see everyday is so fucking insane that i can’t possibly do it justice on the page without turning out some hysterical vollmann-wannabe shit but maybe that’s all i am so instead of writing it i experience it thinking of ways to calm it down creatively but that doesn’t happen so basically i don’t write anything and just go to work as a person first and at least that lessens the asshole guilt i feel as ‘spectator’ like i imposed my (white?) agenda to ‘research’ poverty mental illness blackness as some kind of fucked writing prompt but i still approach it that way sometimes i just try to be a better caseworker than writer i guess.

  13. DeWitt Brinson

      Just write it anyway.

  14. c2k

      Lock your doors.

  15. bobby

      Second that. 

  16. Leapsloth14

      Fiction. Change names. Add a purple scarf where there was a ball cap. Press go.

  17. Corey Zeller


  18. postitbreakup

      this was a wonderful post, hope you write the story (but i guess in a way you already did)

      i find i’m constantly thinking about how i would write about something in the middle of it happening, kind of like the cliche(?) of the writer who narrates his whole life as it happens like a voiceover in a movie.  and then i rarely actually write anything except internet comments.  but i’m always looking ahead to how i would look back through text

  19. MFBomb

      Just be honest. That’s all that matters.

      BTW, as someone who spent two years in a state hospital, I can tell you that I wouldn’t mind an “outsider” writing about that experience, as long as I could tell that you were being sincere about it.  Plus, as a social worker, you’re not exactly an “outsider.” I think “hesitancy” can be more offensive and an excuse for people of privilege to avoid topics that somehow implicate them. 

      For instance, the idea that white people should never write minority characters has always baffled me–a) so you (not you specifically, lorian) think it’s less offensive to set a story in a place with racial minorities, yet not have any racial minorities in your story? and b) can’t imagine writing a racial minority character complexly and interestingly? 

      Invisibility is more offensive than anything, IMO. 

      We have to get over all of the silly identity politics of the 90’s if we want to have real conversations about these things.

  20. Corey Zeller

      I work in social services and have no problem writing something about someone I work with.  Why should I? 
      If there’s a connection…there’s a connection.  And as long as I am not violating any HIPPA regulations then who gives a fuck?  It isn’t about race, or exploitation…it is about people trying to understand other people.  
      Here’s one I wrote a day or two ago about a kid I work with.  The title was written by Dorothea Lasky for a project I am working on:
      The Green Lake is Awake (On Your Face)
      The bloodied woman in the photograph doesn’t seem to notice the sky above her is a washed knife.  Just as the scabbed boy beside me, working on his puzzle, doesn’t see he is a part of the puzzle and the glow-in-the-dark horses half-pieced within.  Look, I say.  There is a spotted horse and there is a translucent horse.  And the rest are wild specks gutted away from the landscape’s no part; rider less and galloping a blunt still.  But the boy doesn’t care about horses, only connections, only pieces. He slides them across the table in consideration.  He picks one up and studies it: ridges of blue, a swirl of magenta.  Then another: the inside of a horse’s eye.  And then stops, bored, to begin another; more of the skin, a pinching away…

  21. MFBomb

      Also, I think we should be willing to risk having our characters critiqued as problematic or “offensive.” It can open up a healthy dialogue on race, disability, etc. Don’t tell me, “it’s wrong that you wrote a black character,” and then stop. This is cowardly and you are part of the problem, whether you are black or white.  Tell me why and how you found the particular black character problematic and then we can have a fruitful discussion on race. 

      Tony Hoagland blew this opportunity at last year’s AWP, when he got all defensive about his so-called provocative poem about race. Clauda Rankine gave him an opportunity to engage in a CONVERSATION (she never said he couldn’t write about race and stopped there) and he acted like a petulant child, revealing more about himself via his reaction than the poem she wanted to discuss in an open forum. What a wasted opportunity. 

  22. lorian long

      i agree with u on several points, but i think what i was trying to get at with my comment is the fear of cliche, or, how to translate what i see into something beyond the blood and guts of addiction, rape, murder, cuz it’s been done like a motherfucker and, to bring him up again, vollmann is king of the hood. the ‘racial’ or ‘political’ aspect is more a byproduct of my hesitation, just cuz i can’t escape the tendency to treat clients as if they were some kind of fucking social study rather than persons living in days, tho we’re all social studies (does this class still exist in high schools in america?), and we’re all animals watching each other, but i hang around a lot of social work anarchists who like to remind me of THE SYSTEM and so i live this double life of awareness/curiosity which means i’m a self-loathing liberal like everyother piece of shit who took one too many gender studies courses at some asswipe undergraduate hole.

  23. lorian long

      we should talk

  24. MFBomb

      I’m glad you mentioned this notion of “cliche,” because it’s something that continues to baffle me in regards to the topic of mental illness (since you brought it up in your previous post) and, more specifically, institutionalization–why do people always act like mental illness/institutionalization is overdone and/or hard to do without resorting to cliche in literature? It’s not.  It’s hardly ever done.  

      There are not that many books (outside the memoir genre) out there that really tackle mental illness compared to other topics, and the number gets much smaller when discussing books set at state mental hospitals (there are maybe 4-5, and none of them are recent), yet all I hear about is how my experience is somehow difficult to write because people have written about it too much already.  Someone show me the books then that come close to approaching topics like war, domestic discord, and coming-of-age in America. 

      Sorry if I really just used your post to vent…this just confounds me.

  25. Corey Zeller

      This is a good point…but I’d like to go even further and say that you shouldn’t even have to explain the “how” and “why”…you just should do it.

  26. Corey Zeller

      for sure

  27. MFBomb

      I hear you, but I meant after the fact….after it’s written and published. I agree that you shouldn’t try to be heavy-handed about these things while composing. In other words, if someone wants to discuss a character/premise/situation as socially problematic.

  28. alexisorgera

      I guess the experience–outside of our own–is important here. I’m likely never going to be a prostitute, so in order to get a little glimpse, I have to drive one around…then if I choose to write about it…well, that’s what writers do. 

  29. alexisorgera

      I don’t see how OCD comes into play here. I’m not being obsessive about the thoughts or compulsive about driving around prostitutes. Impulsive, yes. It was just a question I had–do many writers think about experience in this way?

  30. alexisorgera

      no worries. i like good, thoughtful conversation…

  31. DeWitt Brinson

      Maybe not. But if everytime you have an experience, your first thought is to find a way to capture it in words, isn’t that an obsession?

      I guess from reading your article it sounded as if you try to find these situations to have these stories, which may have just been my interpretation (sometimes I do things for the experience myself, which might be why I thought you were saying that).

      Also, you don’t sound impulsive.

      It’s not like I know you, but I was worried about you. Anytime a stranger is telling you to Go. Now. things are not cool. So I just got worried you were doing that kind of thing a lot.

      Still think it’s an obsession to think about writing down experiences everytime they’re happening. I have OCD myself. That’s how it works.

  32. DeWitt Brinson

      Also, I do think about experience that way. So, yes.

  33. alexisorgera

      I can see how you might interpret my post as such, and maybe there is a modicum of obsessive thinking attached, but in reality this was an exceptional experience for me. I don’t seek out experiences to write about them, but when big shit happens, or something extremely interesting, I do ask myself how I’m going to record it. Like with my dad’s Alzheimer’s, which obviously isn’t thrill seeking on my part, dealing with it is more often than not linked to writing about it. I guess I feel guilty in some ways about that, which may, in fact, have been the original catalyst for my inquiry…

  34. DeWitt Brinson

      Sometimes guilt is the safest emotion we have. I’d rather need to be forgiven than need to forgive someone else.

      I am sorry about your father. Alzhiemers doesn’t allow the catharsis of suffering with the sufferer, and that is a terrible burden.

  35. DeWitt Brinson

      Sometimes guilt is the safest emotion we have. I’d rather need to be forgiven than need to forgive someone else.

      I am sorry about your father. Alzhiemers doesn’t allow the catharsis of suffering with the sufferer, and that is a terrible burden.

  36. adrian

      “Do other writers do this? Am I my own kind of prostitute?”

      William T. Vollmann created an entire career doing this kind of thing.

  37. pizza

      i think the rewards in life are based revolve around the present situation (i.e. i’m hungry) and the anticipation of future memories (i.e. wouldn’t it be cool to move to antarctica?), and the storytelling instinct is actualized in the latter since memories are just stories we tell ourselves, except the plot/characters/etc. change over time (even for the same story/memory). i think they’re both equally important; it just depends on what timeframe you’re mind likes to live in.

  38. Rachel B. Glaser

      Totally feel this way!  Write the story, I love it already.

  39. Marian May Kaufman

      I do that all the time. Whenever I see/experience/or learn about something wild or crazy I always immediately think “I need to put this in a story” I’ve often wondered too why I feel so compelled to capture something on paper, like just living it will never be enough, I have to savor it some way. 

  40. deadgod

      I don’t clearly understand the analogy (here) between prostitution and writing. 

      The prostitute is commercializing a relationship – sex – that would, without political economy, be a love interaction and/or a power interaction.  There’s nothing (necessarily) vicarious, nothing imagined, about the prostitute’s role or position – though, of course, prostitutes imagine whatever they need to to survive psychologically.  It’s the customer who might – I think plenty don’t – imagine that the exchange is something ‘more’ than $ sexual access.

      The writer might be paid for perceiving other people and imagining ‘their’ stories–paid by third parties, not by the observed, imagined, (perhaps) ‘exploited’ persons.

      To be one’s “own” prostitute??  Who’s paying whom for what?

      One is selling one’s perspicacity and imagination the way a prostitute sells access to himself/herself sexually?  The “I”, then, wouldn’t be a prostitute so much as a pimp (?) of “my” faculties and artistry.  Is that what’s meant?  –and reading is consummating a somehow ‘paid for’ interaction?

      To see the writer as a vampire, biting into other people for their magic, or a spy, selling the secrets of other people, seem to me as compelling as as a prostitute, selling access to a part of oneself.

  41. deadgod

      Is storytelling necessarily exploitive of oneself or another?  I think of the Rilke metaphor:  when a person throws and another catches a ball, is either – in the gameexploiting oneself or the other??

  42. alexisorgera

      what about a pimp? I’m stuck on the street corner.

  43. deadgod

      how much would I have to pay to answer that question

  44. Nicholas Liu

      Good metaphor.

      Better than the prostitution metaphor, which draws together multiple complexes of unstated shaky assumptions about art and sex work into a big unstated shaky assumptions vortex.

  45. Nicholas Liu

      Good metaphor.

      Better than the prostitution metaphor, which draws together multiple complexes of unstated shaky assumptions about art and sex work into a big unstated shaky assumptions vortex.

  46. Guestagain

      I feel (not thinking here) that only representing the real experience of others is reportage, recording, and a possible attendant guilt can come to artists as they transcend scenarios, often mundane, showing justice/justifying, making significant/signifying, legitimizing, showing universals, this information that “were friends now” then “started chasing her friend down the street and out of my life” is where the poet/artist goes, but not the journalist, and this happens all by accident and subconsciously, I don’t think we can start out with a specific objective or goal to do this, it emerges while being in the reliable narrator and reporter stream.

  47. KKB

      Main difference being that prostitutes have to sexually service johns.  

      Think about what that means.  Because that work is physical and dangerous, it’s not on the page.Prostitutes have to sexually service johns who oftentimes physically repulse them, oftentimes hate them / hate women, oftentimes degrade them, insult them, and those are the “safe” experiences of going to work.  Sometimes prostitutes have to have sex with johns who then proceed to beat the shit out of them, men who believe that by buying time with you they are allowed to harm you in any way they can think of.  For prostitutes getting murdered at work is a daily concern.  What about disease?  What about jail?  What about cops?  What about having your children taken away?  What about having sex forced on you?  What about self-worth?Honestly, how often do you endure the physical danger of just walking alone at night through a city as a woman, let alone dressed as a prostitute trying to sell someone / anyone time with your body?Writers reminisce.  Or imagine.  From the safety of our own homes, behind a desk, we legitimize life. Not quite the same thing.  Nor really the right analogy.  Though I get it, it sounds good.  But really writing is hard enough just as writing.  But no, even when it’s difficult it’s not prostitution.  Not even by a long shot.

  48. alexisorgera

      Thank god somebody got to that part of the equation. My question was completely flawed, but look at all the great conversation!

  49. KKB

      I agree: great conversation.  And you should totally write the story.  There is so much here.  Stories like these, they could be heartbreaking works of staggering genius, all.

  50. jackie wang

      ahh haha! i used to work at 2 of those motels. the seabreeze and the super 8, actually. basically the sketchiest locales in all of SRQ. daytime armed robberies and constant run-ins with police officers. not the safest place to work. i could write a beefy collection of stories abt the patrons and insane bosses/employees.

  51. KKB

      I agree.  I think it’s so weird that in Hollywood if you tell a story with a female main character or a non-white main character, and do it well, you get bravos.  But in the literary world, we’re so hyped on “write what you know” that it’s only cool to deviate to a bank robber but for sure not cool to deviate to someone of another gender or ethnicity.  
      Though some writers do it admirably.  Kazuo Ishiguro being a particular master.

      And really, it’s a sign of an inept writer or racist / sexist tendencies ( ? of the whole literary scene) to not possibly be able to have stories star characters who don’t look like the writers.  Even though if we openly confuse fiction for non-fiction there’s this whole James Frey take down, it seems we love to confuse fiction for non-fiction and in fact often enforce that confusion when it comes to how characters are allowed to look in stories.Though that too can be used to stunning effect.  Have you read Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrafice by Nam Le?  http://www.all-story.com/issues.cgi?action=show_story&story_id=305Pure genius.

  52. MFBomb

      Nope, sure haven’t. Thanks for the rec though.

      I agree w/ most of what you say here, and I have no earthly idea where this tepidness comes from, other than perhaps the very worst kinds of sociological literary criticism that just dissect literature to score idealogical points and never even consider artistic context.

      On the non-fiction/fiction thing: heard Tayari Jones say no too long ago: “if you write non-fiction, they want to catch you lying; if you write fiction, they want to catch you telling the truth.”

      That pretty much sums it up, unfortunately. 

  53. MFBomb

      Nope, sure haven’t. Thanks for the rec though.

      I agree w/ most of what you say here, and I have no earthly idea where this tepidness comes from, other than perhaps the very worst kinds of sociological literary criticism that just dissect literature to score idealogical points and never even consider artistic context.

      On the non-fiction/fiction thing: heard Tayari Jones say no too long ago: “if you write non-fiction, they want to catch you lying; if you write fiction, they want to catch you telling the truth.”

      That pretty much sums it up, unfortunately. 

  54. alexisorgera

      Wow. I think I’ve stayed at that Super 8. You should do it. It would be sad and funny and biting and absurd all at once :)

  55. KKB

      It is so weird that literary criticism and literary creators somehow became enemies.  I used to always think that this was a myth or a stereotype.  And then I tried to get my PhD.  Wowzas.  It was so purely sociological that one girl’s dissertation was “reading” roadside signs along route 66.   

      I felt like it was backwards day everyday.  Most of the students didn’t even read novels or fiction at all.  The professors not only didn’t read novels, but at one point I confessed that despite having always thought of myself as a fast reader, it was a real struggle to get through all nine hours of theory at the coffee shop every afternoon.  And the professor told me that I was doing it wrong.  You only need to read the beginning and the end, he said.  Guess that’s how he got his PhD?  I don’t know, but I left feeling that it was corrupt.

      And I think it’s corrupt to discourage artists from deeply imagining stories from perspectives other than their own.  Even though I cringe in horror every time I see the preview for The Help.

  56. MFBomb

      “‘reading’ road signs along route 66”


      I will say that things are changing a bit these days…more scholars are paying attention to form and narrative as a way to get at those “larger” questions, which is the way it should be.  

  57. KKB

      Yeah, and I should have known.  I chose the school I went to because I already lived in town.  The school was famous for being one of the first pomos, so they were big into it.  But their MFA program was astonishing, full of the smartest people I ever met.  And so I got fooled.
      By the way, have you read any good literary portrayals of state hospitals / mental illness?  Girl, Interrupted, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, The Cheese Stands Alone . . . do you feel they miss the mark?

  58. MFBomb

      Haven’t read “I am The Cheese” (I think that’s what you mean?), but I’ve read the other two. I think they’re good. 

      The problem is, they’re all sort of dated–all of the ones people can name w/ out the help of Google or Wiki are set in the 60’s and 70’s, back when the “mental hospital as snakepit” trope was all the rage and everyone wanted to deinstitutionalize.  

      I honestly can’t think of a contemporary novel set at a state hospital that deals with more contemporary concerns, like disappearing beds, homelessness as a result of deinstitutionalization, increased reliance on psychotropic drugs, updated notions of criminality, updated policy, lack of funding, etc. etc. etc. 

      Our country’s imagination of the state hospital experience is still stuck in the 60’s and 70’s. 

      Maybe it’s just easier and more marketable to write a memoir about this particular experience, I don’t know–and yet, I still don’t even see many of those set at state hospitals.

  59. KKB

      Clearly you should be the one to write this book.  I nominate you!  

      It is a very interesting point that there are so few these days . . . for a long time I was trying to write about those teen bootcamps that are sort of a contemporary catch-all for emotional or behavioral or disciplinary problems (seemingly of either the kids or the parents).  These places have the added weirdness of kids literally being the property of the parents, which means with no recourse they can be sent away to institutions that sometimes were basically prisons, run by ex-military, for years at a time.  Without even any diagnosis.  …But try as I might, I never really succeeded with the piece.

      Thinking about it now, I remember Stephen Elliot has done some good books on the topic.  Though I have to admit I haven’t read any of them, elsewhere he seems nuanced and smart.  But you’re right, I think they’re all memoir.  And set maybe in the 80s?  90s?

      The moral of the story is: you should write this book.

  60. MFBomb

      Thanks! I’m actually working on it now. About 80 good pages into the project. It’ll be a linked story cycle.

      Shameless plug that clearly relates to this wonderful discussion: my first online piece from the book in progress will appear in Wigleaf this Fall.  It’s titled, “Here, Everywhere, Ghosts.” I’m anxious to see how it’s received.  Look for it!

  61. MFBomb

      I’d love to read a novel set at one of those boot/wilderness camps. That’s a unique premise. Haven’t seen that one before…

  62. hearty magazine | ROUND UP

      […] you are right, Alexis Orgera. All writers do this. We pimp out the world for our own glory. [HTML Giant] […]

  63. lorian long

      not all prostitutes are created equal. some like what they do, some don’t get beat up, some feel ‘safe’

  64. alexisorgera

      but those are them high class hookers.

  65. KKB

      Ha!  Cool.  I totally will.

  66. Hearty Roundup | the blog poetic

      […] look! My HTMLGiant piece on the writer’s mind (and hookers) got mentioned on The Hearty Magazine Friday Round Up. Cool. Thanks, […]