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Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Fabulous Realities

I became a writer because, as a kid, I was a world-class snoop. From digging through the closets at Grandma B’s house, to spying on neighbors, I emulated Harriet M. Welsch, the titular character of Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 novel, Harriet the Spy. “I want to learn everything I can,” Harriet declares, “and I write down everything I see. If I want to be a writer someday, I better start now, and that is why I am a spy.”

Harriet the Spy was so formative, that I’m considering getting a tattoo of one of the book’s illustrations. Inking a picture of Harriet writing in her notebook on my body might be just the thing to commemorate the publication of my debut book next summer, an essay collection I wrote by learning from and spying on my own life, a book I wrote because I’d been collecting Fabulous Realities.

I learned about Fabulous Realities from the other formative book in my early writing years, Telling Writing by Ken Macrorie. I was twelve when I found the book by snooping through Aunt Beth’s old room. It was her old college textbook from when she took freshman composition in 1976 as a requirement for her secondary teaching degree. Grandma let me have the book, and it became my first writing manual (At the time, Aunt Beth was the only woman in my family I knew who had a college degree, and it was such luck that I stumbled upon her book, without which I may have never become a college English professor or writer).

It wasn’t until graduate school that I realized how famous Macrorie was in the world of composition studies, and how his ground-breaking work has shaped the way I was taught writing and the way I teach writing now for three decades. Macrorie devotes an entire chapter to Fabulous Realities, a concept he stole from Thoreau but credits in this epigraph:

“Reality is fabulous. If [people] would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such thing as we know, would be like a fairytale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.”

Macrorie promises, “The [person] who daily expects to encounter fabulous realities runs smack into them again and again,” suggesting, that like Harriet, the key is to notice everything with full, pure attention. But what should you look for when you’re stalking (or sleuthing as Harriet would say) a Fabulous Reality?

Here’s a list, gleaned from Macrorie, which is by no means definitive, but which gives us a good starting place.

Look for:

  • uniqueness

  • tension

  • action

  • telling detail

  • juxtaposition of things that don’t belong together

  • things you’ve directly experienced/witnessed

You can record Fabulous Realities, daily, like Harriet did on her spy route, or you can mine your memories. “If you reach for surprising moments in the past, they will come for you,” Macrorie assures us, suggesting Fabulous Realities can be summoned like a lover, or perhaps a faithful dog. It takes some training, and a bit of practice to establish this discipline, but recording Fabulous Realities daily in a journal, Word document, or the notes app on your phone yields exactly what their name implies.

Aunt Beth made a few annotations in Telling Writing. One was to note she needed to turn in five Fabulous Realties next Tuesday. In another, next to this quote from Emerson,

“Thoreau knew how to sit immovable, a part of the rock he rested on, until the bird, the reptile, the fish, which had retired from him, should come back and resume its habits, nay, moved by curiosity, should come and watch him,”

she scrawled, “That’s how you catch a squirrel.”

I’m puzzled by this observation, though, my mom told me they were so poor when she was growing up, her family sometimes ate squirrel. Was Aunt Beth’s own telling detail, how she’d observed Uncle Corwin catching squirrels? Or should I take the squirrel as metaphor? After all, Fabulous Realities need us to sit still and observe quietly, curiously, for a while before they peek out from behind tree branches, before they emerge from burrows.

The longer I study literature and how to write it, the more convinced I am that what my heart responds to as good and meaningful and true in a piece of writing stems from a Fabulous Reality. Take for instance, “What It Looks Like To Us and the Words We Use,” by U.S. Poet Laureate, Ida Limón. Go ahead. Read it here. I’ll wait.

In this poem, Limón hits on all the characteristics of a Fabulous Reality. In this unique moment, there’s the action of two friends walking through a field. There’s tension because they don’t agree about God. There are telling details too: “woodpeckers flurry” and “clouds in simple animal shapes.” There’s the juxtaposition of things that don’t belong together like “pirate ships” and “arks after the sea’s dried.” By layering all this together in a Fabulous Reality, Limon comes to a deeper truth about the world: it’s “disorderly, and marvelous, and ours.”

Fabulous Realities are addictive to make and to devour. Once you start acquiring them, you’ll be stocking a warehouse of exquisite things to power your writing. They can become a well-curated archive, the deep source from which springs refreshing, pure creative water. In other words, once you have collected a bunch of Fabulous Realities, you’ll have a treasure-trove material. What are you waiting for? Start squirreling them away.

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