Writing Workshop Lesson 6: Found Words
You really must meet Davy Rothbart. You’ve probably heard him perform stories about his family and friends on public radio’s “This American Life” show. His stories are good, particularly the one about going to a South American faith healer. But even better is the magazine he founded. It’s called Found and once you find it, you’ll be hooked.
Here’s how it started. For years, young Mr. Rothbart collected odd bits of writing that he came across: notes left on windshields, lost pet notices taped to phone poles, kids’ schoolwork, drawings, letters, journals started and discarded by their writers, grocery lists, receipts. About four years ago he took his collection, copied it onto pages exactly as written and sold the result as a ’zine named Found.
He put a few in the record stores in his Chicago neighborhood. They sold out immediately, so he printed more. By the end of 2002, he’d sold 20,000 Founds. From all over the world, people started sending him more pieces of paper they’d picked up on the street or discovered in trashbins or found fluttering in the wind against a wall or fence. They were incredibly personal, some of them. Others were just funny: "Took some hos to buy some burritos."
A note left on a car: “Mario, I fucking hate you—you said you had to work then whys your car here at her place?? You’re a fucking LIAR. I hate you I fucking hate you—Amber—P.S. Page me later.”
Rothbart includes with his finds the circumstances of their being found. The Mario note was left on his car (by mistake, apparently) on a February night in 1999. Rothbart writes: “I thought it was a pretty amazing love note: Amber, trying to be all full of bitterness and bile, but giving herself away with her sweet coda—page me later.”
In 2001 he went on the road to promote Found, appearing in bookstores and coffee houses to receptive crowds. He drove a rented car coast to coast, flopping with friends or fans along the way. I put him up at the Stoneleigh Hotel in Dallas and got him booked on The Glenn Mitchell Show on Dallas’ NPR affiliate. He rocked. And that night, 90 people crowded into a lecture hall to hear Rothbart read from his collection of found writings. Many in the audience shared things they’d found. One couple had seen a collection of enormous paintings of science fiction monsters sitting in a curbside trash pile and wagged them up to school to show them to Rothbart.
Now Davy Rothbart regularly performs to packed theaters full of Found fans. He has appeared on Letterman a few times and Found last year became a pretty swank coffeetable book (the magazine still comes out annually). And he still goes on the road to meet “finders” and gather new material, including porn for Dirty Found.
I tell you about him because years before I ever saw Found or met its editor, I kept my own bits of written flotsam and jetsam in what I called “alchemy books.” For me, these served as idea generators and general sources of inspiration. Besides random pieces of other people’s writing, I included odd articles and pictures that struck me as bizarre or interesting. I like clipping obituary photos where the deceased wears a hat (just recently I found one of a man wearing what looks like a live raccoon on his head and another of an elderly woman sporting a pair of Mickey Mouse ears). When I’m running dry and need a laugh or a creative nudge, I flip through my alchemy books and they work their magic. My latest book holds Polaroids of weird public signs--"Free gun with purchase of TV"--and an ace of hearts I found at the bus stop.
When I assigned writing students to create alchemy books, it usually took them a few weeks to get what I meant. Not a scrapbook. No cutesy-ness.
Just start looking around, I’d tell them. On bulletin boards. In the garbage at Kinko’s. Between the pages of used books. Read the stuff other people throw away. Take time to see what that flyer on the laundromat wall is advertising.
And when they got it at last, they’d bring in the most amazing stuff. A grocery store receipt listing just three items: 12 cans of cat food, 12 cans of guava nectar and a box of condoms. An ATM receipt showing a balance in someone’s checking account of $000.01. Either of those could launch a story, a poem or a song.
One note, written in purple ink on pink stationery, was found in a sorority house, tersely telling a pledge that “a session of pumpkin carving would do you a world of good.” Another student found a crumpled list on the floor of the library: “Boys I have kissed,” it said, followed by more than 30 names.
My students’ collections were so good that we’d hold exhibitions of them and invite people to flip through the pages. Many of the books turned out to have unintended themes that even the makers didn’t realize until pointed out to them. Like, the girl who collected dozens of photos of women reaching toward the sky. And the boy who found a child’s journal near his apartment dumpster. The carefully printed words told a story of abuse by mommy’s boyfriend and a Christmas ruined by drunk adults. The rest of this student's collection was a series of invitations to keggers and tailgate parties.
So here's the lesson: Start paying attention to the story the world is writing all around you. What nugget of found writing can you rescue this week? Whose message in a bottle will you pick up on the beach? Start looking. The scrap of paper left in a shopping cart. The Post-it stuck to the wall next to the mailbox. You might soon have the elements for some powerful alchemy, even if it's just bits of paper in a shoebox under your desk.There’s magic out there. It’s up to you to find it.
Add your finds to the comment sections here this week.
Not many of you posted excerpts of your own work last week. That’s OK. I shall just assume that you’re typing away out there in writerland. I hope these weekly exercises give you some new ideas or perhaps offer a diversion from just staring at the wall waiting for the muse to strike. I appreciate any and all comments. Special thanks to those who’ve been sticking with it week after week.