I haven’t done a writing advice post for a while, so here’s one for you.
Rambut = Indonesian for “hair”
Rambutan = a hairy fruit, common in Southeast Asia
These hairy eyeballs are one of the fruits that Justine and I like to gorge on while we’re here in Sydney, because you simply can’t find them in New York. (Or if by some chance you do, they’re both absurdly expensive and half rotten.)
How to describe the taste? Well, the only similar fruit available in the US is the lychee, but I never had fresh lychee until I came to Australia, and the canned ones suck. So the rambutan really is a new taste—less acid than citrus, sharper than melon, darker than pineapple.
Or maybe I shouldn’t use comparisons. Rambutans have their own flavor, so I should describe them in their own terms. And that means really tasting them, then thinking hard, then wondering for a while how words can even capture sensual experience. In other words, describing the hairy eyeball means really being a writer.
(Which also means maybe failing at being a writer.)
These little philosophical diversions are something I love about travel: Going new places reminds you how much bigger the world is than you thought. For every kind of fruit you’ve tried in your life, there are a dozen species you’ve never heard of. No, make that a hundred—there are thirty species of pears, for heaven’s sake.
And it’s not just food. For every kind of social celebration you can name, some culture somewhere has ten more that don’t fall into any of your familiar categories. For every kind of person you’ve met, there are probably dozens of other personality types out there, unknown and unexpected, walking around experiencing entirely different aspirations and fears than the ones you know so well. Even the human emotions we think of as universal and primal sometimes come in very different flavors.
“But all people love their children!” I can hear someone protesting in a whiny voice. Yeah, maybe, but talk about different flavors. In various times and places, people have loved their kids by crippling them, beating them to death, or selling them.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that you need a time machine or even a jet plane to experience difference. I’ll bet that some very different folks live just on the other side of your town, and for whatever reason (social, historical, economic, accidental) you’ve never met them.
Writers need to remember that. I mean, everyone needs to realize that their little sandbox is not the whole world (or a scale model of it, or in any way representative of it). But it’s especially important for writers to keep hitting ourselves over the head with reminders of this simple fact: The world is SO much bigger and humanity so much gnarlier and more complicated than we assume it to be.
And if we forget that, we wind up splicing ourselves and the few people we know best (in my case, college-educated white folks who geek out on sciencey/numbery stuff and music) into every scenario on the planet. We wind up turning this gigantic world into a small one, and wind up writing small books for small readers.
In other words, we become cowards.
(And for us science fiction writers it’s so much worse, because we’re flogging these same, lame photocopies in the distant future and across the universe. Our bigger canvas means a epically vaster Fail.)
So this is my writing advice for today: When the hairy eyeballs look your way, look back. Taste them, swallow them, deal with their weirdness. Then tell stories about them.
Otherwise you’ll suck, both at writing and at life.