Suppose / It Happened Like This

Suppose someone gave you a pen.

Suppose someone gave you a pen, and like in a fairy tale, you had to keep it moving until it ran dry.

Suppose:

Suppose someone gave you a pen.

Suppose someone gave you a pen, and like in a fairy tale, you had to keep it moving until it ran dry.

Everything depends upon it. 

Are you worried about spelling and neat handwriting?
Do you care if you write words that are true?
Would you write about yourself? Or someone born in your imagination?

Suppose someone gave you a magic pen. Everything you wrote would come true. Would you think and plan before you ever wrote a word? Or would you plunge right in, just let the words take you where they take you?
Finding out what happens as you go along,
pretending,
or believing,
even pretending to believe,
the pen will go on forever so any sad story can be rewritten to have a happy ending?

Would you write to please just yourself? Or other people? 

I was maybe ten years old when I started writing. It was an oasis in a two or three-year period when my mentally ill stepfather would have a drug-free Alice-in-Wonderland experience every few months, and get arrested, necessitating a move to another house, often a new school. Sometimes an old school, a grade or two later.

This embarrassed my mother, and so, interested me. I began sitting around writing down what people in my family were saying and doing and my mom would walk past me and ask, in her sweet voice, what are you doing, Audrey?

And I’d say, nothing, just writing stuff down. Which was clearly true. And she wouldn’t wonder about that.

Because I had a little brother who was always falling out of trees and breaking an arm, or falling into a hole deep enough the fire dept would have to try to get him out, and the hole turned out to be an abandoned mine shaft and the Army Corp had to be called in and before the day was over he was on national TV.

I didn’t really get it about TV because we didn’t have one yet but by the end of the day I knew my mother’s hair could stand on end.

And on a quiet afternoon, when she thought she had things pretty much under control, and she sat down on the porch to read a book, a neighbor might come by and say to my mother, that kid of yours has been going through my garbage. I caught him eating whipped cream I threw out three days ago. And my brother would yell, I did not! There were maggots on that whipped cream can! I don’t eat maggots!

And when my mother put us to bed, usually before dark, as you can understand, and she just about thought she’d caught a break, my little sister would get up in the middle of the night or at least some time after dark, they call this sleepwalking. She’d think she was going to the bathroom but she’d go sit down in the living room and pee on the couch.

Because the dog slept outside on the screened porch, this wet spot was something of a mystery until the night my mother had fallen asleep on the couch, reading—my mother was a romance reader long before the publishing industry coined the term; that too is understandable. Who could need a fairy tale ending more? So it goes without saying she didn’t have much interest in what I was doing. I was the easiest child she had.

Until the day my teacher asked us to write a story.
Mrs. Underdown said, Write about anything you want to.

I wrote about the day my mother and my stepfather had a big argument and he got so mad he put a hole in the wall with his fist. To tell you the truth, he’d given a wall a good thump before. This wasn’t so much a violent episode as a form of punctuation.

But we’d never had sheetrock walls before. Sheetrock was new to us, it wasn’t thick and hard like a plaster wall. I can still remember the surprised look on his face. I laughed (I laugh now, thinking about it) and he made me spend the whole afternoon in my room. Which is when I did my homework: writing anything I wanted to.

His surprise is what I wrote about really, more than the argument. Mrs. Underdown said my story was “a fine piece of writing.” She wrote it on the top of the page. And I got an A.
I brought it home and showed my mother.
She said, you are never ever to write something like this again.

Forever after, when she said, Audrey, what are you doing?
And now she was talking to me in the same suspicious tone she used with my little brother,
I would hide the story I was writing under a stack of comics, and tell her I was reading.

Suppose someone gave you a pen.
And said you should write anything you want to.
Don’t plan. Just get that pen moving.
Dare you.




It Happened Like This:

Sometimes unspoken, these are the first words of any story. Even the ones that go on to say ‘Once upon a time.”

All stories are woven with the thread of conflict, and conflict inevitably brings change with it, warp and weft.
There are situations indifferent to the needs of the people caught in the midst, like the weather, or a war. There are also conventions of a given situation that are indifferent to experience, such as education, the conditions of travel, the treatment of illness. Granted, we might find support on an individual level in illness, or on a trip, or a new best friend at school, but we’re all expected to traverse the experience without putting a stick in the spokes.

It’s impossible to get through life without some of the larger familial issues touching us: divorce, remarriages, new relationships a remarriage brings into a broken family, the clash of cultures in families moving country and later bringing family over, or marrying into a family that feels its heritage is threatened. Success and failure. And, of course, death.
On a more personal level within the family, new responsibilities come with the acquisition of a pet, a job, a health issue requiring a caretaker, and it can also be painful to watch unwanted changes in a sibling, a parent, a child.

Still on a personal level, but more at large in the world, there is the experience of feeling unwanted or of not wanting someone else, or something else: ants at a picnic, the new neighbor’s barking dog. Some of us want to make a significant change: students and teachers come to mind, and teenagers. But this can apply to someone older in a business more and more populated with younger people, to someone jailed, whether or not it’s a just punishment, to the elder person resenting the need for a nursing home.

There is the conflict of worry in knowing that a neighbor is in trouble, whether next door or the country on the other side of the border. Conflicts of a racial, religious or political nature always have far reaching effects, establishing invisible lines of disagreement between voters, making guerrillas of our neighbors, making children on the playground part of a gang. Government and the law have been the source material for several genres, and most notably, stories featuring an underdog.

The environment is great tinder for conflict; think hunters, loggers, miners, oil rigs, builders, research scientists and animal testing, zoos.

This is a long way from being an exhaustive list; it’s meant to get you thinking. I’ve used the word conflict over and over, because we have a thousand words meant to express the kinds of conflict we face, but also to water down the intensity of feeling. Think of words like discrepancy or dissimilarity, dispute and misunderstanding. As writers we must be alert to words that rob an experience of its emotional undertow, and of the depth of feeling we might give the characters who are our carriers of that experience.
A situation is made up of the characters in your work, the physical setting they inhabit, the emotional kindling you’ve invested your story with, and the significance of behaviors and attitudes the characters display. In more specific terms: sisters, coming home to see an elderly parent who needs care, grudges and family assumptions about who was pretty, who was smart, who married well and who didn’t, who the parents did more for, and how well these sisters navigate the waters of love and care and responsibility, financial or otherwise.

I remember reading a wonderful example of the build of conflict years ago, and it’s influenced my writing, whether or not I’ve made the most of it. I’ve pored through books, can’t find it, so can’t credit it appropriately, but I remember the gist of it:
“The Senate passed the bill.” Hardly exciting.
“The Democrats in the Senate helped to pass the Republican’s bill.” Now we see factions, and we can assume conflict, but this appears to represent a resolution of that conflict.

But if we change the sentence, adding one conflict-filled word, we change the level of interest we have in the sentence. And this word, secretly, is the one I remember from that example.
“The Democrats in the Senate secretly agreed to help pass the Republican’s bill.”
Suggests one party might be giving the other enough rope to hang itself, no? Lots of intrigue. Money exchanged in dark corners. Definitely conflict.

Let’s go back a minute to that phrase, “change the level of interest we have in that sentence.” Keep in mind as you choose the words to impart conflict, the pace and the emotional impact of a story is determined by the reader’s involvement in the outcome, not by the intensity of the character’s feelings. It’s a distinction that will protect you from melodramatic writing, and will keep you focused on offering the material that interests the reader.

I listened to an editor give a talk on writing picture books years ago. She pointed out that the second page of the picture book offered the small reader an involving point. We were talking picture book, so needless to say the involving point was short and to the, well, point. She gave us plenty of examples, and I headed home to look through a few hundred picture books to see what the involving point was. It varied from book to book, but what it came down to was, the involving point made a grab for reader empathy. The involving point touched on a common fear, or a need so deeply felt it was already obvious to a two year old (and in the picture book it was separation from Mom, not being able to make oneself understood, helplessness, betrayal--as in being taken to the scary doctor, something unfamiliar and threatening, and so on). To make your character’s concerns matter to your reader, you have to make them care.

In Lexie, and in each character that builds the story, there’s a good demonstration of two traits necessary to an involving character, a like-able, if imperfect, character: vulnerability and an obvious flaw. The flaws in a character, rather than the strengths, make us feel for them. Show your readers something your characters are embarrassed about, or wish they hadn’t done, or are afraid of. Show the kind of compromises they make and where they draw the line in the sand. Tell your readers their secrets.