How to Become A Writer Who Writes About the Homeless Crisis
First, don’t become homeless, not for a second. Don’t be a dilettante and temporarily live among the homeless in a tent, RV or doghouse and then use that experience to gin up an agent query or grant application. Then again, such posing could help you land the big book deal and the streaming show. You also don’t need a writer’s retreat in a forested setting to become a writer who writes about the homeless. You already have the perfect spot to write about the homeless—the bleachers at the ball fields across the street from your neighborhood homeless encampment. You just turn the other way and write and stories unfold in real time. Nothing like writing in real time!
Admit it! You’ll never hit the big score with this subject; there is no such hope with anything you write. But you will write about it nonetheless. You didn’t choose the subject, it chose you
What you do have going for you is the knowledge there is something new under the sun with this current American homeless crisis. You see it. You’ve talk with it. Now write a new way about it and never assume you know anything.
While writing about the homeless crisis, don’t shape the story like a foreign correspondent covering a war. There is a war going on in America to cover, and you are part of it because your country is America, and you must not become emotionally detached like so many New Yorker writers are, or delude yourself with objectivity. Use your heart. Write from the heart.
It is important that you don’t align yourself with any advocacy group because then you will become a combination of parrot and ostrich, That combination is terrible for originality but it often opens doors to publication.
You should also take a lot of what homeless people tell you with a shaker of salt. No one has special access to the truth in this story, or any story for that matter. Remember that.
Disdain all conventional wisdom. Experiment with multiple writing genres to convey this story. Choose one, two or three genres, then abandon them all and invent something new or rip off something old! You belong to no genre. You belong to no one. You can’t. You will go on guts and intuition.
Second, avoid a substance abuse problem while writing on this subject. But, if you’re offered a belt of Old Crow by homeless book club reading Bukowski, you damn well better take it. Don’t be a phony!
To quote the writer Lorrie Moore, “Decide faces are important.” And they are with this subject. The American faces of the homeless you’ve seen are nothing like you’ve seen before. You want to know why they look the way they do and you don’t want to make up the reasons.
Why write? It’s fucked up. It’s awful. It’s pure travesty, pure farce. But something else rumbles in the homeless crisis. You don’t precisely know what it is at this point, but you keep spelunking, or excavating with a butter knife, or snorkeling into sewage treatment plants, or making calls on landlines. One day, you might know.
There is no plot to the homeless crisis. Some dipshit editor in a gleaming tower overlooking a thousand homeless people camping on sidewalks below will criticize your writing on the crisis as having no plot. There is no plot! There once was and it started with the election of Ronald Reagan and shattered soldiers in the aftermath of the Vietnam War who ended up homeless and being hated by the draft dodging Ronald Reagan. But now, there is only a gruesome, absurd, squalid and survival-mode mise en-scene of an American tragedy as documented by sights in various homeless encampments in your neighborhood—five to be exact. Make that seven.
Such sights as:
Men playing foos ball
The garbage can barbecued turkey
The bust of a Founding Father
The tomato plants
The flower pots
A man composting next to a steaming compost pile
The pallet throne
The encyclopedia house
The kid’s playhouse
The igloo dog house
The man who rigged up a massive china hutch as a kind of bunk bed
The 57 lawnmowers
The baptism in a kiddie pool
The headless dolls
The beaverwood portal
The blow torching of crawdads for dinner
The fishing for salmon for dinner
The 11 Traeger grills
The 14 mannequins
The stack of VCR players
The Santa Claus collection
The rooftop television antenna from 1972
The death metal guitarist
What do you make of these images in terms of their literary potential? Goddammit! You should have been a photographer or painter or filmmaker to explore the visual nature of what you are seeing, but writing is your lot, so get on with the words, even though they may fail.
Don’t ever forget to throw in some humor when it unfolds in the context of your relationship to the crisis. And there is humor! Some homeless dude wore a tuxedo to a street ministry and another homeless dude needed powdered creamer to mix with cranberry juice to treat a pet squirrel suffering from a urinary infection!
Lorrie Moore suggested a writer should, “…begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or if there even is such a thing as a thing to say.”
She may have a point. Do you have anything to say about the homeless crisis? Finish the project and then you’ll know—maybe. Don’t ask that when you are still wondering about the subject and walking through it. Perhaps the whole business about how to become a writer about the homeless crisis is not ever knowing if you have anything to say. Perhaps that is up to the people who will read your writing about the homeless crisis, including the homeless in your neighborhood who have become your most enthusiastic readers.
Third, don’t fall in love with a homeless person. Wait! Why not? It might be great for the writing and lift one person out of homelessness. You might even get a great idea for a Hallmark Christmas movie out of the experience, or some variation of it, like when a hot female social worker meets the hunky homeless guy living in a van in an encampment. He’s playing a Bob Seger song on an acoustic guitar, she’s doing welfare checks, they see each other. AND HUBBA HUBBA!
Fourth, perform some manual labor pertaining to the crisis: serve coffee, clean toilets, sweep floors, build a shelter. Manual labor always improves your writing so do more of it.
When the time comes to help someone who is homeless, and that happens all the time, ACT. ACT RIGHT THEN AND THERE. It’s about a person in obvious dire need. Help the person and, well, that will help the writing.
Finally, never, ever, say you have finished your writing about the homeless crisis because the story will never end, at least in your lifetime, and that’s how you really become a writer who writes about the homeless. You never stop because if you do, that means you stopped caring and just used the crisis for material.
For example, hypothetically speaking, you feel like the project has come to an end, and have decided to write about something else, say, a semi thriller about a Christian missionary who runs guns and smuggles diamonds to support a ministry in Brazil (true story) and how this missionary was once in the same room with Elizabeth Bishop, Pele and Janis Joplin (true story).
Yes! Yes! Yes! You want to write about that! So you take a walk through your neighborhood to think about this exciting new project, and you see two homeless men smoking meth and tossing a football around on the lawn of a Mormon Church and you know you will have to write that up. And then you see a bald eagle perched on the roof of a a 50-year derelict RV named the Golden Eagle that’s moldering in an encampment and you know you will have to write that up. And then you see four homeless men and a woman playing a board game on a picnic table at seven in the morning near a creek flirting with flood stage and you know you will have to write that up. (What board game was it?) And then you see an osprey soaring above a homeless encampment destroying a wetlands and the bird of prey drops (accidentally?) an eel and the residents of the encampment rejoice and fry it up for supper and you damn well know you have to write that up. When ospreys show up in storytelling, they cannot be denied. You won’t deny them!
Face it. This book is going to be your version of Leaves of Grass. You’ll just keep updating each new edition with more stories about the homeless crisis until the day you die and hold out hope that a few readers find it.