Cul De Sac
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Scott Wrobel maps the mysterious suburbs for his collection Cul De Sac.
Writing Suburban Fiction: The way of the The Sac
I moved to a suburb of a major metropolitan area in 2004, to the edge of a cul de sac, and it blew my mind. I had never seen anything like it. Though I was not officially “in” the cul de sac, I was invited into many of its rituals: house and block parties, National Night Out festivities, driveway bonfires. I was even added to the email list (since removed), though it was made clear I was not actually a member of “The Sac,” as the natives called it, an amusing reference to the male scrotum. (A “member of the sac,” he says, giggling.) I was an outlier, but the cul de sac social controllers allowed me in for a glimpse. But just a glimpse.
Being fascinated, I wanted to learn more about the suburbs, to write some suburban fiction, so I started asking questions. But whenever I asked the natives what they thought of the suburbs, they got nervous. They didn’t see the suburbs as an idea, just a reality. They were instead more forthcoming about lawn maintenance and the debate between air-powered and electric-powered pressure washers. My questions threatened them; they sensed I was trying to gather data. They were right. They smiled, acted appropriate, and spoke in simple declarations: “I love that the kids can run around the neighborhood and you don’t have to worry about them.” They gave me nothing beyond the ideas sold by the suburban housing developers in the 1960’s — safety, security, quietude — and so in a quest to learn what the suburbs were all about so I could write about them, I had to look elsewhere, because my neighbors didn’t give me shit.
So I started researching the “idea” of the American suburbs rather than the on-the-ground reality. I read books: Henry Miller’s The Air Conditioned Nightmare; Suburban Nation: The Rise and Sprawl of the American Dream; The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. I re-read the big-named suburban fiction writers: Atwood, Cheever, Carver, Updike, Ford, Roth. I read Little Children by Tom Perotta, Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm. And I watched TV and movies: American Beauty, Suburbia (the movie based on the play), Weeds, Desperate Housewives. Etc.
I looked at pictures: Suburban World: The Norling Photos by Brad Zellar, Bill Owens’ Suburbia photographs from the early seventies, and photos from the Minnesota Historical Society archives of OrrinThompson rambler communities under construction in farm fields north of Minneapolis in the late 1950’s and early 60‘s — and then I drove out there and looked at them in 2005. They looked different: there were now trees.
And then I remembered that I lived in one of those ramblers for three years. I inhabited one of them. My “starter-home” was one of those Orrin Thompson ramblers. When I lived there, when I was embedded in the development, I didn’t think about the suburbs as an idea, though. I was too busy remodeling the house, building a career, raising kids. I was too embedded to be broad-minded.
And that’s about when I reckoned that to write the truth about the suburbs in fiction, I needed to write about knocking out kitchen walls, snaking drains, and pressure washing aluminum siding rather than writing about the sociology of suburbia. The Tao Te Ching confirmed my thesis. It said, “To write about the suburbs, do not write about the suburbs.”
So I didn’t. Instead, I practiced what I’ve been preaching to creative writing students for fourteen years: avoid “expressing ideas” in favor of details; reveal characters through action, dialogue and description. So I emptied my brain of the familiar ideas expressed about the suburbs: breeding ground of boredom, malaise, self-centeredness, conformity, conservatism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism, the sort of stuff in the Rush song, “Subdivisions.” Then I started taking notes and doing writing exercises.
I took notes about the guy who I saw power washing his mailbox, standing right up close to it as it quivered on its stand; the guy had on a raincoat, rubber gloves, and goggles. Then I saw another guy preening his lawn, down on all fours picking out mulched leaf fragments with his thumb and forefinger and depositing it into a Baggie and sealing it up like it was hazardous waste. And a lot of it never even made the book, like the buzzed guy from the neighborhood north of us who on Halloween hooked up a flat-bed trailer to his John Deere tractor and pulled around a dozen trick-or-treating kids. He weaved through crowds, cooler at his side, and even the state patrol officer at the end of the cul de sac gave him a beer, congratulating him for his community involvement.
And the writing exercise was one I’ve had students do for years, the old reliable object exercise, the purpose of which is to get students to write using concrete rather than abstract language, to practice to Williams’ idea of “no ideas but in things.”
I first practiced this exercise in a Philip Dacey undergraduate writing workshop. I’ve since appropriated and manipulated the exercise in my own classes, and in the case of Cul De Sac, to develop material, the objects I wrote about were uniquely, though not exclusively, suburban: pressure washers, barbecue grills, rolling portable fire-pits, plastic storage bins, extension and bungee cords, minivans, domestic beer, American flags, driveway lights. I started with simple descriptions and went from there, allowing characters to grow around the objects, and from the characters, stories. It worked about 23% of the time, a good success rate.
What I got from my scholarly reading was a good underlying suburban “vibe,” but from notes and exercises, I got real details, which progressed into weird and unique characters rather than suburban “types.” The result of writing about “things,” not “ideas,” resulted in believable weirdos doing weird things in America’s weirdest place, failing in fun, pitiful ways. Unlike the sexy suburban people in Hollywood movies, the Cul De Sac people don’t have affairs. Instead, they get buzzed on wine and light beer and then they go back in their houses. Kids are ignored. Instead of going to analysis and getting their shit together, men pressure wash decks and untangle extension cords and women join scrapbooking clubs. Some go to church and pretend to believe in things. Everybody masturbates.
That’s a fact.
If the Cul De Sac stories were to be successful, then the presence of me-as-the-author in the background delivering message darts about the sociological effects of the American suburbs would be eliminated. I think I succeeded, because when my wife read the book, she looked at me and said, “I like these stories a lot. I don’t hear you in them.”
Welcome to The Sac!