Survive The Holiday Party, Leave With Material
I have to believe that the movie Die Hard originated in the mind of a hapless plus-one at a real office Christmas party. Plus-One is standing around with a horrible plastic airplane cup of horrible red punch. Plus-One doesn't know anybody. And Plus-One starts fantasizing.
How the hell am I going to get out of here? Maybe I could tie that fire hose around my waist and jump off the roof. Or I could take off my shoes and clear the room with odors. Maybe, if a group of criminals busted in...wait, not criminals, GERMAN criminals!
The sad part is that the office party from Die Hard is actually pretty great. A lady photocopies her own butt, which is something I've always wanted to do and never could. I fear the shattering of the copy surface and an injury that's really difficult to explain. In Die Hard, people are doing sex on desks. An international heist is foiled, a cool catch phrase is coined, and Reginald Vel Johnson, TV's Carl Winslow, makes an appearance. This is one of the better holiday parties.
Most of the holiday parties I've been to were boring. Tame. Lots of time there's no booze, nobody engages in safe cracking. At this point, I'd even settle for a crazy old man with a walking staff, a mosquito encased in amber, and one hell of a dinosaur story.
Most times when I'm at a holiday party, I'm thinking, "I wish I was at home, writing."
I'm a crappy party guest. I'll just say it.
But let's be honest. We have obligations. We have significant others, family. We'll end up at a party or two, even if we'd rather be writing. And if we're going to the party, we might as well do our best to make it a good experience. To be positive about it. If you want the credit for going to a party on your spouse's arm, you not only have to go, but you need to have a good time. Or at least, not a bad time.
If you're going to a holiday party, an event, a thing where you'll stand around with that plastic cup and pray for terroristic intervention, you can still write. Sort of. You can at least complete a scavenger hunt of sorts that should make the evening a little more entertaining.
Dinners, office shindigs, and family blowouts. Survive them all, come out with material. Here's how.
Print Out The Bingo Card
Challenge yourself here, and try this printable. A bingo card of sorts. I suggest you bring it to your party. It gives you a mission. A purpose.
Kids do this all the time. Make a game out of it. Run around the grocery store, pretend you're a spy. If you're stuck in the car, so see how many out-of-state plates you can find.
Sometimes when I get to a party, I feel like there's no point. There's no beginning or end. The party started in some nebulous time before I arrived, and it will probably go on after I leave. It's party purgatory.
The card gives you some goals. Some stuff to try and finish before you leave. It can add a little structure to a structure-less time, which might help those of you out there who crave just a little bit of party guidance.
Oh, and I don't know if anyone has invented deliciously-flavored paper yet, but if so, get some. Just in case you get caught with this thing and have to eat it.
Remember The Beauty Of Strangers
I'm not a huge fan of spending a night getting to know strangers. It's just not super easy for me. And a lot of times I feel that I don't see the people I already like nearly enough, so what good is it to waste an evening on someone I'll probably end up hating?
There's a good reason to put yourself with strangers, however.
The beauty of a stranger, of someone you've never met, is that you're a little less likely to take what they do for granted. With family and close friends, their idiosyncratic ways of speaking, their physical mannerisms, I've seen them all a hundred times. A million billion times. They don't feel special. They don't stand out.
The beauty of the holiday party, there's a good chance you'll run into strangers, and they can be great tools for informing your work. They can also be total tools in general. But if you're going to spend an evening with a jackass, you might as well get some story elements out of the experience.
Turn Off Your Phone
Seriously. Get ready to address whatever comes up by using your face holes. If you can't remember an actor's name, puzzle through it with someone, don't look it up on IMDB. Watch what the person does when she's trying to remember a piece of information. Does she say it's on the tip of her tongue? Back of her mind? Tip of her mind?
If you want to share something about a pet, do it with your face holes. Don't just show someone a picture. Challenge yourself. See how someone reacts.
Have arguments. Talk to people. And instead of swiping on a screen, watch them. Watch what they do.
Get Comfortable, Make Others Comfortable
The first thing my mom did when I got to her house for Thanksgiving was fart. In front of me, in front of my girlfriend. Just a nice, loud fart in the middle of the kitchen.
It's called being a good hostess.
My girlfriend was nervous. She made a pumpkin pie, a dish she doesn't usually eat and something she'd never made before. And it's always a little weird to be at a party where everyone else is family and you're the outsider.
But my mom, bless her, cleared a lot of the tension by...un-clearing the air just a bit.
I'm not necessarily suggesting you load up a barrage of flatulence before you go to your holiday party. What I am saying is, feel free to load up something embarrassing. A story where you're not the hero. Don't be afraid to get a stain on your shirt. This is both for your benefit and the benefit of everyone around you. It's hard to take yourself too seriously when you completely messed up shaving and left a huge swatch of hair under your chin. Trust me on this one.
Once you've made things a little less tense, the real fun begins.
Giving And Receiving Stories From Strangers
When you get to a party where people don't know you, it's guaranteed that the first question most people will ask is: So, what do you do?
And most of us answer with three words. "I'm a [blank]."
I'm a librarian. And when I say "librarian" it doesn't really go anywhere exciting. I mean, I recognize it might be exciting for the other person, or they might have an interest. But I think we all feel like we could have pre-printed cards that answer the most likely follow-up questions. Mine, for instance:
No, I don't read on the clock.
No, I don't think eBooks are the end of libraries.
No, I've never fooled around with a secretly sex-crazed lady who has her hair in a bun.
Before you run to print up your own snappy answer cards, consider a different tactic. Say what you do, and go straight into a strange story from your work.
No, I don't read on the clock. But let me tell you, I saw something weird yesterday at work. Some guy printed a whole stack of copies of a ten dollar bill. One-sided copies. And they weren't even cut nicely. What do you do with one-sided, blurry, office paper tens?
No, I don't think eBooks are the end of libraries. But have you heard about all the bed bugs in library books?
No, I've never fooled around with a sex-crazed lady with her hair in a bun. Not as a result of my profession, anyway. But my co-worker found an unwrapped condom in the stacks. Which begs the question of whether it was used right there or transported.
The first difference is obvious. You're engaging with someone. But the real difference is this: each of these maybe elicit responses. You might get a little of their story. Everyone has a story about money, or about what they'd do with a stack of money. Everyone has thoughts about the idea of bed bug infestation, or has a cousin or a great aunt who had them. Everyone has seen a condom laying around.
Listen to what they say. These kinds of stories, these ones that start with a shared experience, they can really inform your work.
If you're stuck on something you're writing, lie and get stuff on that.
Right now I'm working on something, and I was trying to decide what a character should keep his change in. Not a piggy bank, but something. A big Tupperware, a Deep Rock bottle. If that's what I'm working on, I might just lie a little. I might say, "You know what's weird? I didn't have sex with this lady even though she had her hair in a bun. BUT, this other lady with her hair in a bun, she always comes in with all her change in this drawstring pouch with a marijuana leaf on it. It's so weird. I mean, I know people keep their change in all kinds of stuff..."
Share a story. Find a place where you're stuck, and try directing conversations to help get you unstuck.
Pick Up Turns Of Phrase
The other day I was trying to remember something my old boss did, a way she had of speaking. I'm no grammarian, but for whatever reason (probably because my old boss was a loon and I was re-directing my feelings on that situation) it really ached my brain whenever she did it.
After a few hours thinking about it, I finally remembered. Instead of "The floor needs to be vacuumed," she would say "The floor needs vacuumed." Instead of saying, "I need to change the schedule," she'd say "The schedule needs changed."
It made me a little crazy, but it was memorable. Even though I heard it, at most, two dozen times, I remember it years later.
Those kinds of phrases, those ways people say things wrong, those can add really valuable texture to your work. I would never talk like that, but having that in my mind, it can help me create a character with a voice that's distinct from my own.
Nobody wants to read a book where all the characters sound like me. Well, they don't want to read ANOTHER one. I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell already happened, right bros? Is that what I still call my best guys? Bros? Anyway, me and my bros had our chance. Me and my fellow jocks. Now it's time to write some characters who don't sound like us, and picking up those little turns of phrase can be just the way to get those voices cooking.
Pick Up Physical Actions
This sounds really awful as a heading on your bingo card. Like a bizarre checklist carried by someone seeking sex action. "Dude, I'm going to get 5 physical actions tonight, if you get me. Bros."
In case you didn't pick up on the fact that I'm not actually a sexual beast, understand that part of me thinks it's possible there are CARDS that people carry around to try and catalogue sex stuff. Also, I spell "catalogue" with a "u".
What I mean in this case, pick up on those little physical things people do. When that guy holds his drink, notice how he holds his cup with his pinky hovering below the cup's bottom. Watch how that guy plays with the top button on his shirt when he's listening to someone talk. Watch how that lady, as the night goes on, walks different when her shoes start hurting her. Watch what people do when they leave, how they put on their coats, how they struggle with the unfamiliar door latch.
Watch how behavior changes when people get drunk. Watch how it changes when it gets late. Try and nail down that moment when it changes, when the party comes to an end.
Your characters, you have to bring them into the physical world. What better way than to see how real people handle themselves?
Don't Get Too Drunk
Yes, this might seem like bad advice. And yes, sometimes it helps to be drunk.
If I may. And I apologize to my brother in advance because I've told this story in just about every medium imaginable, but here's one more.
A few years ago, I took my brothers and my sister to a bar in Denver on Christmas eve. We played video games and drank. Well, they drank. I drove. They drank and drank, and on the drive home, my brother started hurling. He hurled as soon as we hit the interstate. Then in the mall parking lot where I pulled over. He spent most of the ride home with his head out the window.
What's great about sobriety is, that story is all mine. Nobody else has the clarity I do on that instance. If I'd been drunk, I wouldn't have that story.
Granted, sometimes a belt or two makes the whole thing easier to tolerate. I noticed my younger brother's insistence on stopping at a Good Times, expressed through a light mist of vomit particles, was uninhibited. And I'll grant this as well, it would have been nicer to clean frozen vomit out of and off of a car if my senses were just a little bit deadened.
But. It's years later. I still remember it. Everything's cool, my brother is well and good. With the exception of the occasional interlude of a leftover box that slides under the seat, my car's odor has reverted to normal. And because I was sober, I remember it all.
Take it easy if you want to remember.
Open A Door
An extra sweater is your key to any room at any party. Office, house, whatever. You take it off, drape it over your arm, hold a drink in your other hand and then just start opening doors. Hey, you're just a drunken doofus looking for where everyone put their coats.
It's become a habit for me to look where I'm not supposed to. Any time I'm in a public bathroom, I pull on the cabinet doors. You'd be surprised how often they swing open. I walked into a groundskeepers' closet in a mausoleum once. There was a sink filled with the cut stems of flowers, shears attached to the wall with a small chain. Going places you're not supposed to, just the fact that you're not supposed to be there makes it memorable. Really.
Commit to looking behind at least one door. Or inside one cabinet. Yes, it's rude. In someone's house, I have to acknowledge it's a rude thing to do. If that eats away at you, help clean up at some point. Bag up trash and take it to the garage, a place you probably wouldn't see as a party guest.
Write yourself a ticket into a room where you aren't supposed to be, where there's no party happening. And look around. See what's in there. What the differences are when there are rooms for people and rooms not for people. Find an object you'd want to learn more about.
Yes, again, it's a bit rude. But if I had to invent a character, I think I'd know more after looking through his garbage than his living room.
Consider Stealing Something
I guess it's strategic to put this after the idea of opening a door. Stealing something is worse than looking in a cabinet, right?
Before we talk about the Christmas Spirit, don't worry. You don't actually have to steal something. But what you do need to do is decide what you would steal, if you had to steal something. What would you steal, and what would you do with it?
Take time to really look at a few objects. Touch something. How would that ornament feel in your coat pocket? How would you avoid a hug on the way out, a hug that might reveal your thieving ways?
Thinking about stealing an object helps you go beyond what everything looks like. You have to touch something, feel its weight. You have to feel its emotional weight too, wonder at what you're doing and what the consequences might be. Stealing something, it's a way to love the objects in the room.
Say Fuck. Slip it in somewhere. Say it once. See how it feels to say it to a new person. See what they do. Can you do it without feeling bad? Can they hear it without making a face? What happens to the conversation?
Bring A Lighter
Smoking is bad for your health. Just a warning for the none of you who aren't already aware.
Some of the more interesting conversations I've had happen outside with smokers. Why? I don't know for sure, but I think it's because, well, you all have something in common. And now that we all know how bad smoking is, people feel a little, tiny bit guilty about doing it. But if we're doing it together, if we've already shown the embarrassing side to each other, now we can really talk about...whatever. Or, maybe it's because your willingness to stand outside with someone shows that you actually do want to talk to them.
Any way you slice it, bring a lighter, bring some mittens, and see what the smokers have to say.
Make A Hard Out
Talk with the person you're plus-one-ing for. Or make a decision for yourself. If you leave at 10 PM, then when it's 9:30 and you haven't checked many of the boxes on your bingo card, you'll know it's time to get cracking.
A timer makes an evening like this way easier to handle. You know when to stop drinking. There's a light at the end of the tunnel. Every minute is progressing you towards the end, so instead of throwing time down an endless hole, you can feel like you're getting closer to a tangible goal. Which is getting home, taking off whatever article of clothing is the most annoying to you personally, and watching Die Hard.
Author's note: I know there are a lot of ideas for questionable guest behavior in here. And, well, I consider myself a questionable guest. Whether this was a legitimate column or just a way to get myself un-invited to holiday parties...the world may never know.
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