In December of 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, intellectuals and dissidents in China released Charter 08. A political manifesto, Charter 08 calls for freedom of speech, thought, conscience, and religion. It was written in the hopes of reducing torture and other human suffering.
There exists another type of manifesto: artist manifestos. These statements of dogma define artistic movements. Having a date in the title is often important. In early 2009, for a fiction reading in downtown Spokane, Washington, I wrote Toilet Paper Manifesto 09. My hope was to gather signatures, start a movement. After the reading, one beautiful stranger came up to me and scribbled an unintelligible name on the bottom of the original manuscript.
Whereas writing fiction is hard; whereas the world without novels and short stories would be more bleak than it already is with novels and short stories; whereas the overt formalism of modernism and the deconstructivism of postmodernism have left serious writers of fiction on the brink of nihilism, not to mention depressed; whereas we are trying to viscerally and intellectually reveal characters in complexity and so forth; we, the undersigned, solemnly vow to abide by the 10 articles of Toilet Paper Manifesto 09.
We will avoid all creeds, dogmas, and manifestos. The first rule: there are no rules.
Rule Number 2:
Never start a story with an alarm clock. We all know the first thing people need to do when an alarm clock goes off. No bowel movement, no matter how fierce or gaseous, will viscerally and intellectually reveal characters in complexity and so forth.
Example: An alarm clock buzzes, throws digital fits. Screeches nails across a chalkboard. L-E-Ds blink red flashes on the wall, bright enough they might be police lights.
We, the undersigned, ignore verisimilitude. Fiction, of course, is more true than reality. Without the protections against verisimilitude in article 3, nearly 20% of all our male characters would be named Mike, David, or John.
Example: John wakes, upside down, face pressed into the pillow. Arms underneath, numb, they tingle with pins and needles. He works one arm out of the bed, swings it like a bat. Flails dead weight at the clock. Two strikes. A hit. The bzzz, bzzz, bzzz stops. Instantly.
Eschew humor. In a serious world, plagued by one environmental and economic crisis after another—not to mention death—we will avoid unnecessary entertainments, especially bathroom jokes and bad puns.
Example: John drops his legs off the bed, rolls himself onto them. Tips his head. Tuesday. 3 AM. John has to use the john. The vanity glow aches square behind the eyes. He reflips the switch, finds the toilet in the dark with his hands on the sink, listening for the hiss of the water tank behind the bowl, the leak he hasn’t fixed. In this apartment, alone, he doesn’t have to fix anything.
We, the undersigned, will get to the main action of our stories on the first page. Never start a story with characters that meander. If a story is going to be about using the bathroom, have your character use the bathroom in one of the first three paragraphs.
Example: As he stoops, John feels for the toilet paper. Empty. Just cardboard on the spindle. He can wait, hold it until Mary’s house. He’ll be there in maybe 15, 20 minutes. Mary and the baby, Mike, will be asleep, tossing out the sighs of deep rapid-eye twitching dreams. Mary has an early shift. She asked John to be the alram and watch baby Mike.
Writing is physical. In order to viscerally and intellectually reveal characters in complexity and so forth, we will do push ups, squats, or head stands—anything to get blood to the brain—before each writing session, otherwise our writing will be flat, like prose written while sitting on a bus.
Example: John puts on his shirt and pants and shoes and gets in his car.
Embrace serious themes: war, death, God, divorce, dismemberment, cancer, separation. Note with pathos that Article 7 is the companion to Article 3 (eschew humor), separated in this manifesto by Article 5 and Article 6.
Example (this time a good one): The car radio has Coast to Coast. Nory. Wack-job callers. Only this night, there are no UFO sightings. No abductions. No call ins from the illuminate. Subject is nuclear terrorism. How Al Queda always strikes in twos, threes, and fours. When they detonate the briefcase nukes, maybe two, three, four cities will go up—“Poof,” says a caller. “Which cities?” asks Nory. John switches the radio to classic rock, Van Halen: “might as well jump.” He says, aloud, “Any city but Atlanta. Atlanta has CNN.” But he doesn’t call. Not Nory. John never calls anyone. He’s a utilitarian talker. Only phones during emergencies. Mary says he’s bottled up, going to explode like one of those bombs. Divorce papers are on the kitchen table, stained with marmalade.
We, the undersigned, will write stories driven by causally related action. The action on page one will logically lead to the action on the final page.
Example (another bad one): The road moves past one more night-dead strip mall and into residential, the old neighborhood where the newlyweds lived. One more sign of commerce on the corner. 7-Eleven. With neon in the window: SLURPEE, it reads. John hasn’t had a cherry Slurpee since he was 12, but he still remembers the sweet ice-burn headaches. Among Slurpee ingredients there must be a drug, one that makes people stop cars and delay reunions with wives, sleeping babies, and toilets. A drug more powerful than the fear of nuclear war. John pulls over, kills the engine.
In order to viscerally and intellectually reveal characters in complexity and so forth, we will write stories that go beyond the constraints of a rational mind.
Example: The road moves past one more night-dead strip mall and into residential, the old neighborhood where the newlyweds lived. One more sign on the corner. 7-Eleven. With neon in the window: SLURPEE, it reads. John hasn’t had a cherry Slurpee since he was 12, but he still remembers the sweet ice-burn headaches. Among Slurpee ingredients there must be a drug, one that makes people stop cars and delay reunions with wives and sleeping babies named Mike. A drug more powerful than the fear of nuclear war. John pulls over, kills the engine. He buys two.
We, the undersigned, will write everything with ballpoint pens, longhand, on giant rolls of biodegradable toilet paper. Written in early 2009 for an evening of fiction and poetry readings.