On Human Specificity

I was a flask-shaped man in a velour shirt sitting at long lunchroom tables in business schools, cosmetology schools, junior colleges, community colleges. My business was buying used textbooks and crating them off too a distributor.

Gary Lutz, as quoted in Ange Mlinko’s London Review of Books essay, May 7 2020

That’s just a delicious specificity, none of which is descriptive in the usual demographic ways. We don’t know his age or ethnicity, don’t know height or religion. We don’t usually get asked on multiple choice forms to describe ourselves as “flask-shaped,” but what an outstanding portrayal of a body and its freighted life.

We are collective, demographic. We are gender, ethnicity, age. We can all be reduced to some combination of items by the US Census or by Survey Monkey or by a market-research call center. At a questioner’s request, we can eliminate enough of ourselves to climb within one container or another, even though that packaging doesn’t exactly fit.

But we oughtn’t to do that blurring to ourselves or the people around us. We are specific, marked by innumerable choices, made by ourselves and by others. At every moment, we shed many opportunities in order to pursue one, and each of those paths has led further to who we are. There’s no singular branch point that “made all the difference,” because they all do.

I’m putting together a free class to teach short story writing to a small group. It’ll be based almost entirely on discovering the specificity of our protagonists, the ways in which tiny details and insignificant choices lead to whole, unmistakeable, unforgettable people. If you’re interested in being part of this pilot group, get in touch. It won’t be easy work, but you’ll never forget it, and you’ll be amazed at what you can create.

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