Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sometimes your characters need to run out of toilet paper.

I write characters who wear shoes that don't fit. They tug at crumpled hemlines and try to suck in their bellies so they don't look quite so funny in their pieced-together outfits. My characters have tangled hair. Broken glasses. They eat Doritos or cheese toast or fried eggs for dinner. They fight with their sisters over the last of the toilet paper.

My partner and I had an argument tonight. Not over anything. That's the trouble with being broke. More...It doesn't take two seconds for an okay evening to disintegrate into a bout of venting and taking stress out on each other. When you've just dusted a silverfish off your only "clean" plate so you could share the last piece of toaster strudel for dinner after a long day of -- him, job hunting in an impossible economy, and, me, teaching and an hour-long commute in bad traffic, well -- you just don't have the patience left for somebody to say to you, "Honey, did you remember to pick up the toilet paper?"

If I had, it would have been with our final dollar. I've been hanging onto the thing all week for exactly this moment. The number of non-toilet-paper items I've used as toilet paper this month is astounding even to me. Paper towels, of course -- that's a given. But we're never actually in possession of those. Coffee filters, but you have to crinkle them a while first so they're worn and not so crisp. Paper shopping bags. The empty toilet paper roll. Eventually it gets to the point where you just have to jump straight from the toilet to the shower. This is the reality of being flat broke and I've moved past being ashamed of it -- after all, I work hard for what living I make. I get up at 4:15 to hop on the computer and write until 6:00, when I embark on the hour drive to the high school. Once there, I spend eight and a half to nine hours straight with the kids, with no planning time or lunch and only the briefest of bathroom breaks (although there is usually toilet paper there).

Then I rush home to relax with my partner. Sometimes this means watching ghost-hunting shows and spooking ourselves silly. Or we get down on the floor and wrestle with the dogs. A lot of times, we relieve our stress by giggling uncontrollably while stretching our dollar at the grocery store. We've gotten really good at budgeting. We've also gotten quite good at alienating other shoppers, who happen to be passing by when we, for example, scoop up entire fistsful of the sample butterscotch chips lying out in the baking aisle. Or make the fish in the seafood section talk to each other. Or name the veal. Or wonder aloud what it might taste like to fry Jello.

Only when we get really down low -- when there's no food and no money and the landlords are mad because of the ink stain on the carpet and our basement apartment is filling up with ugly basement-type bugs -- When we get really low, there is less relaxing than there is verbal sparring. Not that we're not in love, because we are. Quite deeply. But we're in our fifth year of hollering such sentences to each other as, "Babe, will you bring me the coffee filters?" and frankly, it's easy to get cranky.

I know there is true poverty in this world, and I know that it's not us. After all, in this very post, I've mentioned having a television, a car, and a computer, all luxuries I relish after years of dreaming of them. I understand that what we are is just good ol' fashioned broke, and we are certainly not alone. I also realize that being broke has made us good at things like finding our way out of jams and making dollars stretch for miles. And I have a hunch -- a very strong one -- that I get my characters from being broke, and I wouldn't trade my characters even for a lifetime supply of Charmin. So, usually, I try not to wallow or to dwell on what we don't have.

But an Angel Soft commercial just played and I sort of feel like my hair is on fire.

Well, my partner just interrupted me to give me a kiss on the cheek and a bite of his sugar-free, fat-free pudding (45 cents at Go Grocery). Now he's trying to close the computer with his foot. So I guess we're making up. Which is the good thing about being broke. He and I have been through so much together, we can't bear to stay mad long.

Anyway, this was all by way of saying:

When you're writing -- or when you're out in the world, dealing with people -- just try to remember that some people are a little chafed from using coffee filters in ways God never intended, and they didn't plan on wearing plum PJ pants with a green sweatshirt to the grocery store -- that's just sort of how it happens. I hate to read over and over about characters who are always rested and clean, with dinner foods at dinner time and a magical supply of endless toilet paper. Sometimes characters just need to be crabby and messy and frustrated and griping at each other for the heck of it. That's life. And it's usually a good read, too.


bettielee said...

Another excellent post Sarah. I couldn't say it better. Sometimes, your characters need to run out of toilet paper. You write so well and keep me engaged. I wish you had time to do some freelance - you should be a magazine writer.

Take care!

Meg Wiviott said...

Sarah - wonderful post. Your characters will be deeper and richer (in all things not money) as a result of your coffee filter experiences.

BTW - when I was in college, my roommate stole all our toilet paper from bathrooms on campus. Every day she'd come home with at least one roll in her backpack. Saved us a fortune.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

I love this post, Sarah! Your point about characters is so true and so beautifully written. Plus, you remind me of days not so long ago when my roommate and I survived on 7-Eleven veggie burritos and Velveta cheese melted over pasta.

Sarah Dooley said...

Mmmmmm, Velveta cheese and pasta!That reminds me of my favorite meal in college. I used to buy six eggs at the 7-11 for 75 cents. Then I would use my campus meal plan and fill half my styrofoam carry-out box with shredded cheese and the other half with cookies. Of course I would put milk in my to-go cup. Back in the dorm, I would make microwaved-egg-scramble-thingies, with cookies for dessert. Mmmmmmm.

Thanks, guys! I'm glad you don't mind reading about toilet paper (or the lack thereof)! I was a little worried that it was TMI.

Paul Michael Murphy said...

I really like your writing, even though this one made me sad. Not to be pushy, but have you considered adding the follower option to your blog? I'm checking in far too infrequently and I found that when I added the following thing my readership went up. Just an idea.

Sarah Dooley said...

I don't have the follower option? I didn't realize that. How do I fix it? (I'm obviously quite skilled at using Blogger ... yeah ...)