Monday, July 28, 2008

The question of the black marker

I have a confession to make: I’ve been contemplating what to write in this inaugural blog post for over a month. Honestly? Nearly two. I’m at the point where I realize I just need to write it, as I hope that the first post is always the hardest, the rest will be easy, and better ideas will come to me like crazy as soon as I next put cursor to page. It doesn’t help that my inner editor keeps telling me: “There’s plenty of blogs out there. What do you have to say? Do you have anything to contribute?” I know that’s a fear a lot of writers have, and I’m just one of out of many--but then I think, yeah, there’s lots of blogs out there on the world wide web, but a lot of them are not full of insightful, beautifully phrased anecdotes. What I want this blog to be, I honestly have to say I’m still not sure, but I guess we (if anyone is actually reading this) will just have to find out as I go along.

On what seems like a totally different note—but, I swear, related to my thoughts about not just writing, but writing something worthwhile—I’ve been wondering about a question a friend of mine posed to me awhile ago. “Where do the homeless guys get those black markers to write on the cardboard with?” Random, yes, but interesting I think. I get the cardboard. It’s pulled out of the trash and used. But what about the black markers they write with? Do they find those in the trash too, and once they find them are glad to find they still have some ink left? Or do some of them share a single black marker?

This has a point. I live in Chicago, and every day I pass by the homeless. I’m not trying to demean their lives or them as individuals in any way. But the thing is, I do pass by them everyday. They shouldn’t be, but they are just a part of the city to me. I rarely wonder who they are, where they came from, or why they’re sitting outside the Michigan Ave. stores jingling their McDonald’s cups and holding their signs. But, that question, “where do they get those black markers from?” forces us to think beyond them sitting on a street corner. What led them here? How did they become homeless? They couldn’t have always been hopeless right (my overly optimistic side thinks)? Or maybe that’s how they grew up (my cynical viewpoint kicks in)?

The question of the black marker is exactly what writing stories is about. It’s about looking beyond what we see everyday and not just seeing the man covered in dirt and tattered clothes. It’s about looking beyond, asking the how, what, when, and most importantly, the why. As our high school English teachers said, Go deeper, beyond the text. In this case, go beyond the visible.

I don’t have a particularly great answer about where they get those black markers from (and that’s part of the reason I bring it up—it can be anything we dream up in fiction), but the point, for now, is that I’m asking these questions (no matter how absurd they sound) and thinking them through.

This morning the question of the black marker changed. I passed an older man, hunched over his cardboard sign, which read, “I’m a good girl who’s made some bad decisions.” So maybe it’s as simple as they reuse old signs they find. But then again, what happened to that girl? Did she get off the streets? How? When? Where? What? Why? And before I know it, a story is forming.