Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why Writers Need Craigslist

With our impending house-merge and move to Charleston, Barry and I have been listing furniture on Craigslist. We own doubles of everything—couches, cookware, tables and rugs. Choosing what to take and what to leave behind is a dizzying project.
On Saturday, two twenty-something fathers arrived to haul away a pine wall unit gathering dust in my basement. The men were new to Ohio, having come by way of Kentucky and West Virginia. The twang in their voices was “hill country” with an undertone of weary acceptance. Their job digging sewers for municipalities meant they never stayed in a city longer than a year, and I marveled at the logistics of moving two wives and seven children from state-to-state. I took their cash with misgiving then loaded them up with children’s books and toys, including the huge neon blue “bouncy ball” my own children enjoyed from the toddler years through high school After-Prom.

An elderly black couple appeared to buy my bar stools. She was lean and elegant, her tight curls glossed a modern, metallic gold. Her husband? He stood silently, the front pocket of his shirt half torn off as if he’d donned the clothing on a pass through Goodwill. Which immediately brought to mind a depressing statistic: more men than women have lost jobs in the Great Recession.

A gay couple arrived with chatty effervescence to purchase my living room couch. A nurse with a limp loaded my end tables into the back of her rust-bitten Chevy. A young man from a local church, his teeth bad but his smile wide, picked through the freebies stacked in the foyer.

A landscaper covered in dirt and frantic with worry hauled away the refrigerator in my garage. He was twenty-six years old, a single dad with four kids, and his girlfriend was back at their apartment trying to salvage the contents of their dying freezer.

Why should you care about the people I’ve met on Craigslist? If you’re a writer, you know that good prose evokes an emotional response in the reader. The characters we dream up carry shadings of fact. Those “facts” deliver the most impact if they cause the reader discomfort or allow her to view aspects of the human condition that are unfamiliar. Leave the fluff to the neophytes. Gritty is good.

The people we meet shape the books we write. This last week has taught me a great deal about endurance, about how everyday people lead heroic lives. No doubt most, if not all, of what I’ve learned will soon find its way into my fiction.


  1. Great piece. Reminds me about when I put my Flip HD camera on Craig's List and sold it to a prostitute who asked if it would be a good camera put videos up on the "internets."

  2. There you go, Rick. No wonder writers need Craigslist. There are so many "characters" we'd never meet without it!

  3. I really enjoyed this post, Christine! What a wonderful group of people - and such interesting characters!

  4. Whenever I regretfully encounter someone's less-than-stellar actions, I now think to myself, "You might want to stop how you're behaving, or you just might be the inspiration for my next antagonist." :)

  5. I love meeting random strangers and learning about them through their actions and appearances. I used to do that a lot in the city parks, where I would just sit and take notes on the people that walked by.

  6. Terri, the Craigslist experience was great fodder for future work. Also heartbreaking to see so many people struggling simply to make it through in a difficult economy.

    Michelle, we should all have tee-shirts printed with that warning! Of course meeting people who exhibit less-than-stellar behavior does help the curious writer develop antagonists.

    Marlena, I play a game with writer friends: Spot someone in a crowd, describe him in 5 words. Great practice for the next time you're developing secondary characters that don't warrant an entire paragraph of description.

  7. What lovely little character sketches you gave to us--and thanks for evoking my memories of similar times. When we moved from Albany to Chicago, we had a garage sale (pre-Craigslist). I'll never forget the woman with the triplets prancing on harnesses like a small pack of troublesome Corgis. Or the man who wore a hat made of folded newspaper. Or the woman who argued over paying $50 for my antique treadle sewing machine. We kept it, only to give it away much later. Good luck with your move!


  8. Sharon, your character sketches are adorable. More reason why the wise novelist leaves her computer on occasion to meet characters in the real world!

  9. I think a lot of men have lost jobs relative to women for several reasons.
    1) men aren't as educated as women, and that's due to their lack of initiative as a whole.
    2) women are better communicators for the most part and are able to network better, thus preventing job loss or at least minimizing its effects (i.e. they are able to get on their feet faster with more networks in place than men, who aren't as able to cope as well)
    3) the economy itself is based on jobs that women do better than men in SOME cases--jobs that rely on interpersonal communication, HR, networking, multi-tasking abilities, etc.
    4) the decline of heavy industry. both men and women have lost jobs in this one.

    so, your point about men and women losing their jobs is very spot-on.

    men can mitigate this situation if they would get more education and try to help themselves. if they do so, they will be able to regain the education that women already have.

  10. Very nice piece. Although you have just described half of my relatives back in Texas LOL No seriously I have been reading about this stuff in the early AM today. So true!

    PS- I have needed to put a few things on Craigs List for a while, time to get away from this desk.

    E Stelling>Creative TMI

  11. Thanks for reading along, E! The Craigslist experience was heartwarming. I met so many lovely people while selling off most of the contents of my house. Now I'm happily living in a much smaller house in a much warmer climate--heaven!