What Is Speculative Journaling?
other than the best thing ever
I came across a literary magazine recently with a unique offering—they were seeking submissions for ‘Speculative Diary Entries’. I read through the description, sat back, and thought: fuck yes.
See, Speculative Journaling (I’m going to use journal instead of diary because my manhood is fragile) is something I’ve been doing for years.
It is this: take a real life event—real setting, real characters, real conversations, real experiences, then layer on other elements; supernatural, magical, science-fiction, as you like. Each of the fantastical elements are used to heighten, emphasize the lived experience.
Some say this is simply fiction—though I’ve always disagreed—there is a line (and I do cross it), sure, but I don’t think it is fair to call it straight-up fiction. But it was hard to argue when I never had a term for it. Over the years, I’ve called it ‘magical-realism memoir’ or, ‘fabulist non-fiction’, but none of those terms ever clicked with people—and certainly never got the attention of any magazines.
These types of stories were primarily what I wrote when I wrote my Flash-365 project, and if you look at the description for my book, you’ll see that it is described as a ‘magical-realism memoir’ a thorn in the side of my publisher. And, over the years, I’ve had several stories of this style published—always marketing them as straight fiction.
Now—I feel a bit justified, less alone—not so crazy. I thought this week I’d do something a little different and share a few short “Speculative Journal” entries of mine, elaborating on why I chose to change the things I did.
If you like these entries, please comment or send me a message. If it turns out they are enjoyed by readers, I will write and publish more of them in this newsletter.
Example # 1: To make a point.
Minefields and Misfires
My coworkers have started placing landmines in the hall. They’ve gotten clever with it. At first, they’d cover them with a sheet of paper, or a casually-dropped scarf. If you weren’t looking down, they’d get you.
Then someone found the manufacturer who sold our building their floor tiles. Now, I never know where to step. It happened again today. I had my headphones on, walking down the hall, minding my business, and WHAM—
It blew my left leg right off. My headphones went flying and I crashed into the wall. When I looked up, my coworker was standing above me. She smiled. “Oh, Benjamin,” she said, bending down, “—so, me and some people are going out for drinks tonight. You should come!”
I pushed myself into a seated position and took off my belt. “Work people?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yeah—just get everyone together and bond, you know?”
I used my belt to cut blood flow from my bleeding stump. Once I got it nice and tight, I looked back up at her. “I’m sorry. I don’t think so.”
Her smile stepped off the cliff of her face. “Why not?”
“Look,” I sighed, “it’s not that I don’t like you—don’t take this the wrong way. I just—just, I don’t care about you. Any of you. I don’t want to care. I have my own life, my own people and shit to care about and you people are fine—just, fine. But, no.”
And, thankfully, just as she was about to respond, she stepped on a land-mine-loaded tile of her own, and—being smaller than I—was, blessedly, blown to smithereens.
I wrote that story after having almost the exact conversation with a co-worker. I’d been avoiding people for a while; making excuses, putting off plans, hiding under my desk. But people are relentless—always implying that you’re not ‘contributing to a positive workplace’ if you’re not being social—to the point where someone straight-up cornered me in this very presumptive way and I couldn’t help but give my honest answer. It didn’t go well and more-or-less blew up that working relationship. To me, it’s less fun to write about that experience as it happened—explaining in detail all the ways I was avoiding people, setting the tone, the scene, and so on. By upping the stakes, the point of the story becomes stark and I can get to it quickly. Maybe that’s cutting corners—but it’s why I like this genre so much. I love cutting corners.
Example # 2: To be more engaging
Hungry Hungry Hippo
It is cold. It is dark. It is wet. My friend is late. I light a cigarette and stand beside the subway entrance. Three drags in, a hippopotamus in a police uniform, walks up to me. He has a five o'clock shadow. He growls.
"I don't speak Russian," I say. He growls again, holding out his hand. "I don't understand," I tell him, this time in Russian.
He glares at me, tilts his head up, and lets his jaw drop. From the maw of his enormous mouth pops a little yellow bird that hops onto his fat purple lip.
"Give him your passport," it chirps at me. I rifle through my pockets and produce my passport card. The hippopotamus takes it and holds it up in front of the bird's face. "Tsk, tsk," the little birdie says. "You'll have to come with us." The mouth closes on the birdie. The hippopotamus motions for me to follow.
"Have I done something wrong?" I ask, staying in step with him.
He takes a deep breath and bellows, "NO SMOKING."
"I'm sorry," I say, looking back at the crowd of smokers who'd been standing feet from where I'd been. The hippo leads me to a police car and motions to the back door. I open it and get in. Another hippo is sitting in the driver's seat. They grumble at each other. Off we go. As we drive past the spot, I am supposed to meet my friend, I sigh. Something small and sharp digs into my knee. I look down. The little yellow birdie cocks its head up at me.
"Do you want to go to the police station?" it asks.
It nods, flutters onto the shoulder of the passenger-side hippo, and whispers into its ear. The hippo nods. It shoves its large hand into the space between the driver and passenger seat. The little birdie looks at me, then motions to the hand. I look at the hand, then at the little birdie, and frown. "Are you an idiot?" the little birdie says, wide-eyed. I look back at hand, and it dawns on me. I reach into my pocket and pull out some money. I place it in the hand. The hand disappears. "Good boy," the little birdie says.
I smile, feeling a confused sense of pride. The hand returns, this time holding my passport. I take it. The car stops. I look out and then back at the little birdie. The little birdie gives me an incredulous look. I frown. "Well, get the fuck out," it says.
"Oh!" I open the door. "Thank you," I say.
The little birdie shakes its head, and as I close the door, I hear the hippo bellow, "NO SMOKING!"
Now here—I really was put in the back of a police car in Russia by a corrupt officer who asked those exact questions and I had to bribe my way out of the situation. I enjoy speculative journaling for things like this because—well, honestly, I don’t want to write something that sounds like I’m accusing the Russian police of corruption. Not because it isn’t true—because it isn’t really the point. And, it isn’t that funny all by itself. It’s a bar story. “Once, I had to bribe the Russian police.” Story over. Now, a hippo with a birdie in his mouth? To me, That’s a story. And by having the birdie speak English, I can cut around the mess of elaborating on how we communicated through their minimal English and my abysmal Russian.
Example # 3: The Pitfalls
One thing that tends to happen when I write things like this is that they begin based on an idea, an experience, and blossom into total fiction. The issue with this is that since the story is based so heavily on my experiences and thoughts, I forget to include the elements that might make it a story—instead coming out as a sort of story-shaped commentary on something I’ve been dealing with or thinking about. For example:
DRUGS ARE BAD!
I had to renew my teaching certification this week. I made it all the way through the usual modules without a hitch and felt pretty confident until my instructor announced: “Okay, so we’ve got a new module this year that everyone needs to pass.” He clicked the projector and a slide came up:
Drugs Are Bad
“Lately, we’ve been receiving complaints from parents that teachers are not believable enough when they tell kids that drugs are bad. So, we are going to do some exercises and have a mock lesson, shouldn’t take too long and we’ll have you all out of here in a jiffy.”
Eight hours later, I found myself alone with the instructor in the conference hall. He sat across from me, looking haggard and fed up.
“One more time, Mr. Davis, ready?”
“Ready,” I said. I stood and walked up to the white board they’d rolled into the middle of the floor for the mock lessons.
The instructor raised his hand.
“Yes, how can I help you Jimmy?”
“Hi Mr. Davis,” he said, making his voice creepily kid-like, “my brother said that he loves cocaine, but mommy says cocaine is bad. Is cocaine really bad?”
“Well,” I started, “the thing you’ve gotta remember about cocaine is that it often gets cut with other things so you’ve really gotta trust the supplier and—“
“No!” the instructor stood, he pulled his hair and shouted at me, “YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO GIVE THE STUDENTS ADVICE ON OBTAINING COCAINE!”
I threw down the board marker. “BUT IF THEY GET COCAINE FROM AN UNRELIABLE SOURCE THEY COULD HAVE A BAD TIME.”
“THAT IS NOT—“ he smacked his clipboard, “—THE FUCKING POINT!”
We seethed at each other for a moment, but I—feeling the bigger man—said, “Okay, fine, I’m sorry. Yes, Jimmy, cocaine is bad.”
“Was that so hard?”
“Shut up.” He picked his clipboard up and sat back down. “Okay, last one.” He composed himself, sat straight, and raised his hand.
“Yes, Jimmy, how can I help you?”
He made his voice child-like again. “Yes, uh Mr. Davis, so my friend at school has started smoking marijuana and he asked if I wanted to try it but I heard it can make you stupid. Does it really make you stupid?”
I uncapped my board marker. This was an easy one.
“Well Jimmy, my mother has five basic rules for making sure you don’t make an ass of yourself when you’re stoned—“
“Oh, FOR FUCKSAKE!” The instructor cried. He threw the clipboard at me, kicked over his chair, and stormed out of the conference hall.