Hunting for HILPOs

Hunting For HILPOs

We writers can learn a lot from beagles. And of all the wise beagles in the world, my favorite is my dear friend, the celebrated canine treasure of Columbus, Ohio, MOE the BEAGLE.

(Sorry, Snoopy.)

Moe is always curious, always hungry, and always greets each day with boundless enthusiasm, despite his advancing age and a recent, rather painful, knee surgery. But, most of all, what writers can learn from Moe and his kin is to HUNT.

Unofficially, my hunt for literature’s most precious and elusive creature, the hilpo, began in 1993, long before I was aware of its meaning or power, and even longer before I refined and streamlined my hunting tactics. I was a third grader at Beechview Elementary, a quaint public school that sat at the end of my neighborhood street.

I grew up in one of those middle/upper-middle class Midwestern subdivisions where most everyone really was relatively pleasant and well-adjusted. Come college application time, most of us struggled to describe our “greatest challenge thus far,” since, regardless of our varying races, religions, and talents, there was a unified wholesomeness to growing up in a place where people shared crock pots, snow blowers, and pediatricians.

A former classmate posted this on Facebook. Can you find me? I’ll give you a clue: My hair consists of two wedge-shaped blonde-hued bushes on either side of my face. (Hot!)

But what appears Pleasantvillian peachy from the outside is not usually the case once one peels back the velvety skin. Deep down in our core, none of us were entirely rotten, though we had our bruises and our mealy spots, and that’s where the real humanity of suburbia dwells, is it not?

So, maybe my shameful mealy spot was self-inflicted, and maybe in 1993 it wasn’t so much a spot than a region, but it didn’t have any real bearing on my reputation as a perpetual “good kid.” No one knew what I did. No one knew that during 1993 to 1995 I concealed a dark, nefarious, top-secret behavioral tick, punishable by law. Okay, maybe not law, but you could certainly be fined for it. No one knew, that is, except for Beechview Elementary’s librarian, Mrs. Lancaster.

Half-blind, hard of hearing, and humorless as she was, Mrs. Lancaster was on to me from the get-go.

What I did was not plagiarism – not even close. Even then, at nine years old, the idea of plagiarism seemed condemnable by death. Despite ones’ temptation to mimic the literary genius of another, the written word was innately sacred to me, the idea of taking someone else’s unnaturally sinful. I could never, ever rob someone else of their craft. 

I just wanted to hold on to it. For inspiration. For remembrance. Forever.

So, yes, Mrs. Lancaster, twas I. All of those rainy weekday afternoons from 3:18 to 4:30 pm you spent in your librarian apron flipping through and refiling easy reader chapter books only to find dozens and dozens of missing, carefully torn-out pages, well, today your whodoneit mystery is solved:

I done it, and I done it a lot.

My chronic habit was truly petty kleptomania: I was just over four feet tall and bird-boned, and the objects in question, well, you can’t get more petty than the occasional, gingerly removed sheet of paper. But to this very day I feel badly about it, robbing future readers that way. And here’s why it really mattered: I took the good pages. The gem-filled ones. I took the ones that made me laugh or cry. Though I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time, I wanted things to be hilarious or poignant, or nothing at all, and if they could be both hilarious and poignant, that was a great read, a read worth keeping.

Sometime between selling lemonade as a source of income and having a mouth full of braces, I stopped tearing pages and starting scribbling down the lines that made me laugh or cry. By acknowledging my affinity for the rawness of guttural laughter and reflexive tears, I discovered what kind of a writer I wanted to become. I wanted to move people – move them to laugh or to cry, and, if I could master them separately, maybe someday I could incite them both simultaneously.

I knew this was a tall order, so while most of my middle school peers collected beanie babies, pogs, Troll dolls, and other mid-’90s fad collectibles, I filled a hat box with my elementary school robberies and new post-its, index cards, and notebooks, each brimming with hilarious or poignant lines I found along the way. Maybe they were spoken by Bridget Jones during her date, or Bilbo Baggins before he fought the dragon, or my mother as she helped me prepare for my band concert. Atop each snip-it I wrote: “Hilarious/Poignant,” which soon evolved to one, all-encompassing word that would grow to be used quite regularly in my writerly circles: “Hilpo.”

Note: There are no steadfast rules for detecting the hilpo.

Naturally, what may be a hilpo to one, may not reach that status for another, as we each walk the planet with a unique set of emotional and intellectual triggers. But in general, it’s fair to say that if something is funny or poignant to you, it will be to another, and it’s worth testing.

The hilpo’s habitat is everywhere, and I’ve found the sooner you make a habit of hunting every day, in every location, the more efficient you will become.

For instance, during an October hike down Temescal Canyon, I heard a young woman exclaim, “This path smells exactly like my Autumn Leaves Yankee candle!” which I promptly texted to myself, as I happen to love crafting characters who say obtuse, silly things of this kind.

While spending an afternoon with a friend’s four year-old, I was asked, “Why doesn’t Santa give hungry kids food instead of toys? If I were hungry, I’d want a cheeseburger, not a Barbie.”

While trying on clothes in a fitting room, I overheard a teenage daughter tell her mom, “Yeah, I thought he wrote that song about me. But Lexi said it was about Jesus, and when I confronted him he admitted it. I guess it makes sense. I wouldn’t die for him.” bahahahaaaa

My brother, Michael, the kindest person I know and an impromptu hilpo extraordinaire, once told me that whenever he travels via Southwest Airlines (who has a choose-your-own seat policy) he tries to look as antisocial as possible so no one sits next to him. When I asked him what exactly that meant, he said, “I don’t know. Mostly I just cross my arms and do Sudoku with a pen. I mean, really, you’d have to be an arrogant asshole to do Sudoku with a pen, don’t you think?”

Now, some of these may not strike your fancy, but they somehow struck mine.

So, what do we do with them?

In my experience, sometimes a character grows out of a hilpo. For instance, “What kind of a guy does Sudoku with a pen?” Other times, they prompt a “what if” question that leads to a hilarious or poignant scene or subplot. Like, “Maybe she thinks he visits campus to bump into her, when in actuality, he’s going back to school in preparation to enter the seminary and become a priest.”

The heart of the hilpo hunt, however, is not to use the lines in a direct or indirect way in our writing (though it is a bonus when it happens). The true purpose is to exercise our ability to observe, to take in, to be a sponge of our surroundings and its peculiar inhabitants.

In our homes, our grocery stores, our bus stops, and our parks are hundreds of hilpos waiting to be hunted – nuggets and fragments of characters worth meeting and stories worth telling.

Simply, in our society today, you don’t need to lead an exotic life to have access to thought-provoking, hilarious, and poignant ideas. They are all around us, so hunt them with passion, rigor, and insatiable curiosity.

(Like Moe.)